675 words; 3 minutes

One of the great myths about the criminal justice system is that one of its major purposes is rehabilitation, helping people who did something wrong improve themselves so they will no longer commit crimes.

But when we look at the justice system objectively, it is clear that its dominant purpose by far is to punish people.  This focus can be seen in every part of the system, from restrictive bail conditions (for someone who is officially innocent) to the emphasis in sentencing on punishment, to the conditions in jails and prisons, to the focus in parole and probation on control and monitoring.

If the system were truly interested in rehabilitation there would be much more emphasis on diversion prior to sentencing or even to a plea.  Jails and prisons would focus on rehabilitation, and there would be far better services for people after their release or while on probation.  For example, the federal prison system spends only about 20% of its budget on everything other than staffing and security, and only 20% of its staff work on programming or health care.

We also see the urge to punish when the media publishes so many stories about how victims of crime are angry because the sentences given were not harsh enough.

Why punish?

But where does this urge to punish come from?  In an influential analysis, researchers Henrique Carvalho and Anastasia Chamberlen  write that a focus on punishment  does serve certain purposes, but these have less to do with the results than with the expressive function – what we communicate to ourselves and others when we punish.

Building on the work of the philosopher David Hume and the sociologist Karl Durkheim, they suggest that the human desire to punish others provides us with a sense of group solidarity.  By punishing those who transgress we reaffirm our commitment to the group. What we pretend to be the result of reason is often much more driven by emotion. In other words, punishing someone makes us feel good, whether or not it accomplishes anything else, such as reducing crime. And it makes us feel good because it helps us feel that we are good people who belong in the group, not like those bad people we are punishing.

Indeed it is possible that an ineffective criminal justice system that nevertheless appears effective (or necessary) can seem more appealing than one that actually addresses the causes of crime.”

This emotional orientation is the reason that punishment is often so ritualistic.  The rituals serve to reaffirm both the exclusion of some and the inclusion of the rest of us in the society. It is also a reason why people who have committed a crime are then forever linked to that action, and are never able to redeem themselves fully.

Punishment and social unease

The need for this kind of solidarity goes up, the authors argue, when social conditions get more uncertain.  When people feel insecure or afraid, we are more willing, or even more anxious, to engage in more punishment of others.  ‘Tough on crime’ also plays better when inequality rises in a society, as it has in Canada for the past 20 or 30 years.  It is tempting to identify those who are different from us as a threat, and then the natural consequence is to punish them.

A main problem with this approach, the authors say, is that it often makes things worse, not better.    The more we focus on and punish certain kinds of behaviour, the more likely we are to see that behaviour all around us, and that makes us more afraid, not less.  The media give excessive coverage to very unusual and horrible crimes which leads to more fear and the demand for even harsher punishment, even though that entirely fails to improve the situation

“… punishment is primarily about ourselves as punishers, rather than about offenders, or even our relation to offenders. Furthermore, the motivation to punish is grounded primarily on the emotional dimension of punishment, rather than on an understanding (or misunderstanding) of its social outcomes.”

Criminal justice policy in Canada could do much better than this!


Source: Henrique Carvalho and Anastasia Chamberlen.  Why punishment pleases: Punitive feelings in a world of hostile solidarity.  Punishment & Society 2018, Vol. 20(2) 217–234.






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