Debate on Punishment v. Rehabilitation

Subject: Law
Pages: 7
Words: 1681
Reading time:
6 min
Study level: College


The debate on how to treat prisoners is a long-standing one that has lasted throughout the history of imprisonment. The dispute has revolved around two main issues, namely, punishment and rehabilitation. Should inmates be left to fester in cold cells where punishment and deterrence are the main goals? Should they be guided through counseling and other activities to rehabilitate them?

On either side of the divide are proponents and opponents who give strong points for or against punishment or rehabilitation. This paper discusses punishment and rehabilitation with the aim of revealing how they affect the deterrence of crime, the impacts of the two methods on the victims, their families, offenders, and society.

Deterrence of Crime

The main purpose of the criminal justice system in the modern world is pegged on four objectives, which include penalty, incapacitation, preclusion, and therapy. However, in the current years, the ruling-procedure plans have focused on increasing the disincentive consequence of the criminal integrity structure. In the quest for the criminal justice system to deter crime, many questions arise. How do punishment and rehabilitation help in this goal? This question is important, owing to the controversies that surround the concepts of punishment versus rehabilitation.

Firstly, punishment in criminal justice is used to refer to sanctions that are imposed by the law for the commission of criminal offenses. In criminal justice, punishment consists of five elements. For instance, it involves unpleasantness to the offender solely because of an actual or supposed offense. It must be meant to help an offender. Although it must be carried by personal agencies, a power whose regulations the wrongdoing has violated must compel the penalty. Following the preclusion theory, this situation speculates that individuals are coherent beings who weigh the cost before engaging in a misdemeanor.

Punishment is aimed at making it less desirable for people to commit a crime. However, statistical findings are highly against the use of punishment in the criminal justice system. For instance, a study by Schmitt, Warner, and Gupta (2010) found that the rate of recidivism amongst convicted persons upon their release was as high as 63% in the United States. Further, more than 45% of the inmates had previous arrest records and convictions before their current incarcerations. Such findings evidently show that the deterrent effect of punishment in criminal justice is not as effective as what policymakers want the population to believe.

Secondly, calls for the criminal justice system to shift its approaches of crime deterrence from punishment to rehabilitation have increased drastically. The concerns on the failure of punishment as a crime deterrence tool in criminal justice have led policymakers and other interested parties to question its viability. For instance, since 1994, prisons in the US have been overcrowded, an indication of the increased crime rates in society. According to Drago, Galbiati, and Vertova (2009), rehabilitation offers an alternative that can be used in the place of punishment since it promises better results in preventing recidivism.

In criminology, rehabilitation refers to the process of taking away the desire to offend and putting in place measures of successfully reintegrating the offenders into society. Rehabilitation is viewed as a permanent fix since it involves changing the offender and his/her relationship and status in society (Schmitt et al., 2010). Consequently, by changing and reintegrating former offenders into society, proponents of rehabilitation hold that it is more effective than punishment. Therefore, by creating a permanent fix into the criminal justice system through rehabilitation, there is a higher likelihood of recidivism, less crime in the society, and hence less crowding in prisons.

In light of the concerns of the failure of punishment to deter crime, many changes in the criminal justice system that focus on rehabilitation are taking place in the world. For instance, there are calls for inmates to be accorded basic rights that are accessible to free men. Further, there are efforts to increase mental health programs in the prison system in addition to rehabilitative programs that are being put in place. People who are against punishment claim that since human beings learn from experience, punitive punishments, including the infliction of pain, hard work, and long-term incarcerations among others all work to harden the offender (Drago et al., 2009).

For instance, overwhelming research shows children and people from violent, poor, and unstable family backgrounds are more likely to be involved in violence and crime. As such, punishing them does not help them to reform whatsoever. From the above expositions, while punishment is hard to eliminate in the criminal justice system, there is a need to increase rehabilitation programs, as they are more effective.

Effect on Victims and Victims’ Families

One of the main purposes of the criminal justice system is to ensure that justice is served fairly to the victims and their families. In the debate of punishment and rehabilitation, the issue becomes highly contentious since it is the wish of the victims to see offenders severely punished for their wrongdoing. However, according to Tonry (2008), the rights of victims have not been upheld fairly in the proceedings.

For instance, while the accused has his/her rights enshrined in the law such as the right to a speedy trial, right to confront witnesses, right to counsel, and right to due process, the rights of victims are absent or neglected. However, in 2004, a bill was signed into law guaranteeing victims of their rights in the courtroom.

While the will or wish of the society and victims is to have the offenders punished, such an approach can prove counterproductive to their welfare. For instance, in cases where victims are required to be compensated, punishments that involve long jail terms may inhibit the offenders’ capacity to pay the victims. The situation can act to affect their welfare and those of their families. One can interpret the case as a failure of justice to be served fairly (Schmitt et al., 2010).

Consequently, while the victims and their families point to a preference towards punishment, there is a need to find ways through which such punishments do not act as a hindrance to justice that the law seeks to offer. For instance, rehabilitation and probation can be a sure way of ensuring that offenders get back to society to fulfill other requirements of their sentences. At the end of the day, maintaining a balance between punishment and justice from a victim’s perspective is a difficult process, which requires the involvement of various stakeholders to guide the process.

Effect on the Offender

The impact of criminal justice proceedings and incarcerations on the offender are far-reaching. For instance, according to Tonry (2008), between 15-25% of inmates have developed (or develop) psychological problems during their imprisonment time. This finding is higher than the rates in the general population. Further, separation from family and society can lead to depression and other mental disorders. In addition, society is less forgiving.

After incarceration, former convicts find it difficult to be successfully integrated into society. Such situations are reflected in terms of difficulties in obtaining meaningful employment, starting families, and/or having a meaningful social life. Consequently, with such isolation and difficulties in establishing a normal life, the risk of recidivism is very high. As such, the concept of punishment does not work well. There is a need to reflect and bring changes to criminal justice to ensure that it does not have such drastic effects on society (Drago et al., 2009). For instance, as discussed above, rehabilitation can be a very good option for ensuring that offenders are assisted to adopt pro-social behavior to help them be successfully integrated into society.

Social effect on the Society

The impact of criminal justice on society is two-fold. On one part, through the punishment of offenders, the criminal justice system serves the wishes of many members of society. On the other hand, such punishments may have a disrupting effect on the normal functioning of society. For instance, many families are broken down when one member is incarcerated for long. In this case, society has to bear the cost of bringing up children from such families. In addition, disruptions in families may indicate future problems, including drug problems, school dropouts, and other problems for children in such families.

All these issues are a burden to society. According to Drago et al., 2009, when the criminal justice system does not serve to deter crime as intended, it no longer serves its purpose in society. Consequently, it may be important for society to revisit the criminal justice system and propose changes that will best serve the interest of the society in the short and long term. For instance, considering rehabilitation over punishment might be a move in the right direction.

Fiscal effect on the Society

The cost of incarceration in the United States currently ranges from USD$ 28,000 to USD$ 35,000 a year for healthcare, housing, feeding, and clothing for an inmate. With such cost per head, the high number of prisoners means that these costs are increasing, and hence a burden to the society (Tonry, 2008). Further, due to population challenges that face the prison system in the US, the need for more prisons and prison space means that more money is being spent. Another issue is that the high rate of recidivism means that these costs are increasing each year. The overall cost of running prisons in 2010 alone was USD$39 billion. With such trends, it is important to question the viability of the current criminal justice processes.


The debate of punishment and rehabilitation is likely to end soon as long as the society and victims prefer punishment to rehabilitation, despite the known failure of the former as compared to the latter. The available data indicates the failure of punishment. For instance, the high rate of recidivism and an increasing population of inmates are an indication of the lack of effectiveness of punishment as a crime deterrence tool. Consequently, failure to reconsider the approaches to criminal justice to include rehabilitation among other more effective ways, the impact of the criminal justice system on victims, offenders, and the society is likely to become untenable.

Reference List

Drago, F., Galbiati, R., & Vertova, P. (2009). The Deterrent Effects of Prison; Evidence from a Natural Experiment. Journal of Political Economy, 2(3), 257-280.

Schmitt, J., Warner, K., & Gupta, S. (2010). The High Budgetary Cost of Incarceration. New York, NY: Center for Economic and Policy Research.

Tonry, M. (2008). Learning from the Limitations of Deterrence Research: Crime and Justice: A review of research. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.