By: William Moore
Why, as a nation, do we sentence criminal offenders to significantly more time than others? With rehabilitation being a thing of the past, we must look to the rationale of our justice system to make sense of why our average sentences for convicts soar above those of other countries. While flaunting the protections of the constitution, as a nation, we send far more of our citizens to prison for even substance abuse than Europe or most other similarly situated countries.
First off, it is important to understand that rehabilitation has been off of the table for some time and punishment is the name of the game. Prison, fines and an endless array of other penalties exist primarily for the purpose of "pay back". The primary justification of the United States criminal process comes from the seeking of retribution. For those of us who defend, it is well understood that the victims of crime firmly believe that the perpetrators should suffer the most serious of consequences as a result. Retribution is the age-old reason why most people believe in criminal punishment.
Another intended purpose is that of simple deterrence. The belief is that the harsh punishment of criminal offenders will make others think twice before committing a similar crime. The deterrence argument is often employed when promoting the death penalty. Interestingly, research shows that criminals are actually far more deterred by a high probability of being caught - even if the punishment is moderate - than they are by severe sentencing. The deterrence argument also applies to that offender: perhaps he will be less likely to re-offend now that he has experienced prison.
The third "stated" reason is incapacitation. This argument is most effective for habitual offenders and may be less relevant to one-time offenders. Incapacitating criminals by putting them in prison, where they cannot commit crimes that hurt society generally, is a favored reason for long prison sentences.
Another additional intended purpose that is routinely stated in various legal publications is that another goal is denunciation. Society indicates that it seriously disapproves of criminal activity through punishment. Traditionally, denunciation often occurred publicly and in a humiliating way. For instance, in the pre-Revolution American colonies, offenders were often punished by being put in the stocks in the middle of the town square. While suspects no longer face the stocks, the humiliation for a typically law-abiding citizen can be overwhelming.
When deciding on sentencing policy, legislators should always examine the ramifications of the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishments. That amendment prohibits execution for many violent and particularly henious criminal acts.
In closing, as the times continue to change, so will our reasons for employing a particular form of criminal punishment. Unfortunately, the concept of true rehabilitation is not expected to re-enter the picture in our lifetime. For this reason, we may expect our jails and prisons to be higher learning facilities for career criminals thus increasing the amount of prison release reofender filings.