Definition of Retribution in Criminal Justice

Image by, courtesy of John Steven Fernandez

Retribution in the criminal justice system refers to the idea that offenders should be punished for committing crimes when they freely violate existing social rules. Retribution would not support punishing someone who do not exercise free will or was forced to commit a crime, i.e., a gunman compels a victim to steal money. One example of retribution involves the notion of an eye for an eye, which demonstrates that punishment of serious crimes is justified when deserved.


Various explanations exist to support the development of a criminal justice system. Immanuel Kant, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill are among the many philosophers who have analyzed the criminal justice system. Retribution fundamentally differs from other theories, such as utilitarianism, that aim to deter future crime. While utilitarianism looks forward to develop a punishment, retribution looks backward and analyzes the crime. Under retribution theory, the last prisoner in a jail who is a murderer should be executed. However, utilitarianism argues that killing the murderer creates no social benefit.


One type of retribution is known as assaultive retribution, societal retaliation or public vengeance. Since the offender harmed society, it is morally acceptable to hate the offender. Positive retribution involves the idea that innocent people should not be punished but the guilty always must be punished. Some retribution advocates are against the death penalty.


Retribution does not require actual harm to occur in order to legally punish someone. For instance, offenders routinely are punished for their failed attempts at murder or burglary. Retribution justifications and practices vary by state. Some states allow executions and other state provide wider leniency for first-time offenders.


Retribution policies also arise when dealing with juvenile cases, which usually involve children under the age of 16 who commit offenses. Depending on the situation, children have received life sentences without possibility of parole because of their actions. The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on Nov. 9, 2009, in a case involving two Florida teens serving life sentences. Both teens committed felonies. One was convicted of rape at age 13 and another convicted of attempted robbery first at age 16 but again a year later.


Some critics of retribution argue that the criminal justice system should strive to reduce instead of cause more human suffering. Critics believe that crimes are not unyieldingly right or wrong. Another belief is that retribution harms criminals and is less effective than deterrence or reform-based ideas. An example of deterrence involves educating offenders about criminal penalties before they act so they understand the consequences they will face.

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