5.2.7 The Objectives of a Penal System

The objectives of a penal system include punishment, rehabilitation, deterrence, compensation, and the protection of society.

It is important to maintain a balance between these multiple objectives:

●  The purpose of punishing offenders is to satisfy victims and others that ‘justice has been done’.

●  The rehabilitation of offenders lessens the chance of them reoffending when they are released.

●  Would-be offenders can be deterred from crime by making them fear the likely punishment if they get caught.

●  Penalties can include at least partial compensation for wrongs, by some form of restitution.

●  Society needs to be protected from future harm by known offenders.

In reaction to an incident, and stirred up by the media, politicians and the public sometimes lose sight of the need for balance between these objectives.  People’s instinctive desire to punish offenders, egged on by victims and their families seeking revenge, can take precedence over the wider interests of society.  The outcome is all too often an overreliance on prison as a punishment.

There are good reasons for reducing prison sentences or finding other ways to achieve the objectives of a penal system.  Prisons are costly to build, costly to operate, and they provide criminals with new contacts and ideas for further crimes.  The Economist reports that There is nothing inevitable about America’s over-use of prisons and that it is possible to “lock fewer people up and still preserve public safety”.  Various alternatives are available:

●  Tagging allows offenders to continue working whilst keeping track of their movements to ensure that they comply with conditions imposed by the court.

●  Community service is less expensive than prison, or even probation, for certain types of offence, and the service is, by definition, of benefit to society. It can also be more educative to ‘make the punishment fit the crime’ where possible.  There is no reason why any organisation which can provide appropriate supervision should not offer itself as an outlet for community service.

●  Dialogue with victims has proved effective for some types of crime, causing offenders to recalibrate their behaviour.

All of these alternatives offer a better route than imprisonment, for offenders to reintegrate with society and become constructive citizens.  A negotiated approach to this topic would take account of the needs of society as a whole and the appropriate use of the other dimensions of power:

●  Cost, including loss of the offender’s potential earnings and tax contributions, should be taken into account.

●  From a moral perspective, it can be argued that damage to the offender’s life prospects should not be disproportionate to the crime committed. It is likely that an offender who has been sent to jail would be rendered unemployable thereafter.

●  The law should be allowed to take a medium-to-long term view of the needs of society, rather than respond to short-term political pressure.

 ● Mature political leadership would try to lead the population towards solutions that are in society’s best interests, rather than provide an eye-catching tactical response by introducing new legislation to increase punishments.

In general, it can be argued that politicians in the legislature should focus on making appropriate penal solutions available.  They should allow the judiciary to take decisions about individual cases.


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This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/527.htm.