Sentencing When Many People Talk

Of course, one way that offenders can be deterred from offending is by incapacitating them. Sometimes the goal of sentencing is just to be able to keep that particular offender from engaging in further criminal behavior. Theoretically, putting an offender in jail automatically fulfills this goal of sentencing. However, the reality is that, even in prison, people can engage in criminal behavior. In fact, crime is rampant behind bars. For example, incarcerated males are much more likely to be raped or murdered than general population members, and these crimes are often ignored by prison officials. It is only if one looks at retribution as the primary goal of sentencing that one can really think of imprisonment as incapacitation, because, from that perspective, crimes against other criminals do not carry the same weight as crimes against non-criminals. The reality is that any criminal has the opportunity to offend against people in prison, and those potential victims can include prison staff and visitors, as well as other offenders.

The final goal of sentencing is rehabilitation. Rehabilitation refers to the goal of transforming a prisoner into a productive member of society, and is aimed at making society safer and reducing overall crime rates. Rehabilitation examines the underlying causes of criminal behavior. When one looks at those causes, it becomes clear that, for certain portions of society, criminal behavior can be a logical choice. For example, children in poverty-stricken areas who face dangers that have been compared to war-zones might be making rational decisions when they choose to join gangs, even though membership has risks, because they generally gain greater personal security and access to wealth with membership. Rehabilitation focuses on changing the circumstances for the individual, so that he or she has the possibility of leading a productive non-criminal lifestyle.

What further complicates the issue of sentencing is that the different motivations behind sentencing may actually conflict with one another. The most obvious conflict may be between the goals of retribution and rehabilitation. Retribution generally means punishment and many people feel that a criminal sentence is only appropriate if it is adequately punitive. However, there is a substantial amount of evidence that punishment might actually encourage future criminal behavior. Contrasted with punishment, when sentencing focuses on rehabilitation, the goal is to ensure that the offender is transformed from a criminal to a productive member of society. Rather than punishing an offender, rehabilitation might include counseling, addiction treatment, job training, life skills training, and continuing education. In fact, many aspects of rehabilitation might be seen as treating offenders in a lenient manner, which many people who are in favor of retribution might find offensive. Furthermore, different offenders might respond to different types of sentencing. At the bare minimum, it is suggested that age, location, gender, race, culture, and type of offense all interact with the type of sentence that an offender receives (Farrington, 2007). While the different purposes of sentencing can come into conflict, it is important to realize that almost all modern criminal sentencing is designed, at least theoretically, to serve multiple purposes. Discovering an appropriate sentence involves trying to find the appropriate balance between all of those different purposes of sentencing.


Chen, M.K., and Shapiro, J.M. (2007). Do harsher prison conditions reduce recidivism? a

discontinuity-based approach. American Law and Economics Review 9 (1), 1-29.

Farrington, D. (2007). Advancing knowledge about desistance. Journal of Contemporary


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