Criminal sanctions

Criminal sanctions in the United States have four main goals: retribution (deserved punishment), deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation (Cole, 2004). According to Cole, Ultimately, all criminal punishment is aimed at maintaining the social order, but the justifications for sentencing are closely tied to the American values of justice and fairness; however the justice sought by victims often conflicts to offenders. Punishment reflects the dominant values of a particular moment in history.

By the end of the 196s, for example, the number of Americans who were sentenced to imprisonment decreased because of a widespread commitment to rehabilitating offenders; by contrast, since the mid-1970s record numbers of offenders have been sentenced to prison because of an emphasis on imposing strong punishments for the purpose of retribution, deterrence, and incapacitation (Cole, 2004). According to Cole, at the beginning of the 21st century, voices are calling for the addition of restorative justice as a 5th goal of the criminal sanction.

Retribution is punishment focused on the criminal behavior of an offender, designed to reflect society’s condemnation of such behavior (DeRosia, 1998). According to Cole, ‘retribution’ is penalty imposed on someone who ‘infringed’ on ‘rights of others’ and thus ought to be penalized; it means that those who commit a particular crime should be punished alike, in proportion to the gravity of the offense or the extent to which others have been made to suffer.

Some scholars claim that the desire for retribution is a basic human emotion; they maintain that if the state does not provide retributive sanctions to reflect community revulsion at offensive acts, citizens will take the law into their own hands to punish offenders (Cole, 2004). Deterrence refers to the prevention of criminal acts through swift, certain, and severe punishment (DeRosia, 1998).

Deterrence is penalty intended to be repulsive which neither the lawbreaker nor others will do the offense in the ‘future’; an extreme ‘fine’ for unlawful actions is an example of the application of ‘deterrence’ to try to minimize offense (McKenzie, 2006). Many people see criminal punishment as a basis for affecting the future choices and behavior of individuals (Cole, 2004).

The fear of swift and severe punishment has long been used by governments to control deviant behavior; in theory harsh punishments will deter individuals who might otherwise be prone to break the law from actually doing so (general deterrence), as well as individuals who have already violated the law (specific deterrence) (Martin, 2005). According to Martin, in previous generations, public hanging and displaying offenders in stocks and pillories served to punish lawbreakers and deter other would-be violators.

Incapacitation involves restraining an offender from committing further criminal acts, making it physical impossible to commit new crime by thwarting the opportunity to break the law (DeRosia, 1998). Incapacitating judgments can include long-term imprisonment or execution (Marin, 2005). According to Martin, examples of policies developed in support of incapacitation can include early targeting of career criminals, mandatory life terms for recidivist, and fixed (determinate) sentencing for all offenders.