In this lesson, we discuss the U.S. criminal justice system and how it deals with deviant acts. We define due process and discuss four rationales for social punishment: retribution, deterrence, rehabilitation, and societal protection.
The U.S. Criminal Justice System
Crime is certainly a big part of our society, and it even dominates popular culture. How many TV shows, movies, and books can you think of that deal with crime in one form or another? A frequent plot in these fictional stories involves the 'good guy' crossing 'over the line' in order to bring the 'bad guy' to justice. Luckily, the good guy is never punished for breaking the rules or laws - all is forgiven because he or she caught the bad guy.
In real life, however, the police must follow due process. This is a simple but very important concept: the enforcers of criminal justice must operate within the boundaries of the law. This ensures fair treatment and respect of the rights of the accused, including giving them a chance to defend themselves. Due process is part of the Bill of Rights - it's covered in the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution. As such, the government and its representatives must follow the rules to help ensure justice.
Criminals are granted certain protections in the Bill of Rights.
Another common scenario in so-called 'cop shows' involves a criminal that has been caught but released due to a technicality, such as the arresting officer forgetting to read his rights. This can certainly happen in real life because there are specific step-by-step procedures that must be followed by the criminal justice system. If even one step is skipped, the arrest could be invalidated and the criminal escapes from punishment.
Punishment is an extremely important concept in our society. It helps teach correct behavior to those who are deviant. Children are punished by their parents, students by their teachers, workers by their bosses, and so on. When it comes to criminal deviance, punishment can range from a fine to incarceration to execution. When a crime has been committed or someone has been wronged, almost everyone believes that someone should have to 'pay.' This is probably why cop shows are so popular - we feel a great sense of satisfaction when the guilty are punished at the end of the episode, when justice has been served.
But why do we have such a strong desire for justice? Sociologists have identified four basic reasons why society punishes wrongdoers: retribution, deterrence, rehabilitation, and societal protection.
Punishment for criminal activity can range from small fines to the ultimate penalty.
The first, retribution, is punishment by which society makes the offender suffer as much as the suffering caused by the crime. I'm sure you've heard the phrase 'an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.' Retribution is a punishment that is considered morally right and justly deserved. For example, the death penalty is a punishment allowed in certain states for those who have committed atrocious crimes. It could be argued that someone who purposely takes the life of another deserves to have his or her own life taken in return.
A less grisly example of retribution is the idea of karma. Karma is a system of reward and punishment for actions and intentions, where good actions and intentions reap good rewards and bad actions and intentions reap negative consequences. Karma works through reincarnation. Our desire for retribution is appeased by the idea that a person who is just and moral will be rewarded in the next life. Someone who is not moral will be punished in the next life, perhaps by returning as a lower being (such as a slug).
The second reason society punishes wrongdoers is deterrence, which is punishment used as an attempt to discourage criminal deviance. This is based on the idea that people won't break the law if they think that the punishment is too severe - they decide the behavior isn't worth it. Deterrence can be used to convince one person that crime doesn't pay. The punishment of one person can also be used as an example to others.
For example, individuals who park in handicapped spaces without a handicap sticker or placard could be fined up to five hundred dollars depending on the location. The threat of this hefty fine successfully deters many from illegally parking. Those who decide to park illegally anyway are unlikely to do so after being caught the first time because they don't want to pay the fine again. Their punishment also serves as a warning to others who may have thought the law would not be enforced.
Some penalties deter someone from committing a crime again.
The third reason society punishes wrongdoers is rehabilitation, which is a program for reforming the offender to prevent later offenses. Most people would probably associate rehabilitation with an institution where drug addicts go to sober up. After all, drug rehab is a popular storyline in popular culture, portrayed in music, TV episodes, books, and movies. It is a good example, because this type of rehab exists to help addicts resist drugs in the future. The basic idea behind rehabilitation is that by controlling the environment, a deviant person can be taught proper behavior and even be motivated to act in such a way. After all, research suggests crime and other deviance are learned through poverty and/or lack of structure or opportunity. Why can't the opposite be true?
Unlike deterrence and retribution, which simply make the offender suffer in payment for their crime, rehabilitation promotes constructive improvement. For example, some prisons attempt to rehabilitate criminals before they are released back into society. The prisoners are taught skills, such as carpentry, that can help them make an honest living once released. Studies have shown that rehabilitation programs can be much more effective than incarceration alone in minimizing repeat offenses.
Punishment: Societal Protection
Speaking of incarceration, the fourth reason society punishes wrongdoers is societal protection, which is punishment by which the offender is removed from society. This can be temporary, through long-term imprisonment, or it can be permanent, through execution. Either way, this punishment is used for criminals who cannot be rehabilitated and so are removed from society completely. Others are protected because the criminals are incapable of committing further offenses.
Locking away criminals protects the innocent from being harmed.
The United States uses societal protection more than any other country. Even though we have less than 5% of the world's population, we have almost 25% of the world's prisoners. This certainly illustrates our tough attitude towards crime and our preferred use of societal protection. Yet although we seem united in our approval of locking up criminals, we can't seem to agree on the use of capital punishment. As a hot topic for decades - some could even say centuries - it is one punishment that may cease to exist one day.
In summary, punishment is a highly important concept in our society and helps teach correct behavior to those who are deviant. Unlike the delivery of punishment frequently portrayed in popular culture, police and other enforcers of criminal justice must operate within the boundaries of the law. This is known as due process.
Sociologists have identified four basic reasons why society punishes wrongdoers: retribution, deterrence, rehabilitation, and societal protection. Retribution is punishment by which society makes the offender suffer as much as the suffering caused by the crime. Deterrence is punishment used as an attempt to discourage criminal deviance. Rehabilitation is a program for reforming the offender to prevent later offenses. Societal protection is punishment by which the offender is removed from society.
After completing this lesson, you should be able to:
- Discuss the importance of due process and punishment
- Identify and explain the four reasons that society punishes criminals