Punishment Extremes

Once more into the vortex of punishment theory.

As I previously wrote, most systems of punishment rely on multiple rationales. But it is an interesting thought experiment to play each out to its logical extreme. What follows is a glimpse into such worlds.

A system of punishment concerned exclusively with incapacitation might be described as a one-strike system. Any offense would result in a long, likely life, period of incarceration. This is so because the only way to incapacitate someone, so that they can never offend again, is to lock them away until death. Obviously, such a system would be incredibly expensive and could result in a significant percentage of citizens behind bars, perhaps even so much so that the society would be comprised almost entirely of inmates and jailers.

A rehabilitation only system would also likely be very expensive to operate, but for different reasons. If we are concerned only with perfect rehabilitation, such that recidivism rates are at or near zero, then our prisons would be structured more like university campuses. They would provide remedial education, post-secondary education, job skills training, extensive mental health services and top quality medical care.

A system of perfect deterrence would likely be comprised of inordinately extreme punishments for even the smallest crimes. As an example, life sentences for jaywalking. Under such threats, people would simply not commit crimes. But there is an obvious psychological detriment to society, in that the threat of such a severe punishment would be tantamount to living under a repressive government.

Restoration is a little bit trickier. One could imagine a system in which a severe enough criminal act, murder, might result in indentured servitude for the rest of a person’s life. Such a system would not need prisons, but instead would rely on accountants and other fiscal officers to collect the debts due to victims and/or society.

Retributive justice’s only logical extreme would be that of literal eye for an eye. Though, in practice, it would present some difficulties. How does one take property away from a criminal who has none? What about a crime like rape or sexual assault? Perhaps we would expose the criminal to that same act.

In thinking of these logical extremes, it becomes clear why punishment systems consist of several different rationales. And it helps to show just what the logical limits of a particular position are. Hopefully it makes us focus on how best to construct our punishment system in a way that maximizes efficiency and morality.


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