Types & Goals of Contemporary Criminal Sentencing

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  • 0:55 Retribution
  • 3:09 Incapacitation
  • 4:28 Deterrence
  • 6:11 Rehabilitation
  • 7:11 Restoration
  • 8:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley has a JD degree and is an attorney. She has taught and written various law courses.

Criminal law is designed to punish wrongdoers, but punishment takes different forms and has varying goals. This lesson explores the types and goals of contemporary criminal sentencing.

Criminal Punishment

A convicted murderer is sentenced to death. A convicted shoplifter must serve one year of probation and repay the store. A truant high school student is ordered to attend an alternative school and complete community service hours.

Each of these is an example of a criminal sentence, but notice the differences! The severity differs because the purpose of each punishment differs. There are five different goals of criminal sentencing, and different types of sentences are designed to meet different goals. The goals are:

  • Retribution
  • Incapacitation
  • Deterrence
  • Rehabilitation
  • Restoration

Let's take a look at each of these goals.


First, let's examine retribution, which punishes the crime because it's fair and right to do so. This historical goal of punishment is premised on retaliation, or the action of harming the criminal because the criminal harmed society. In other words, the criminal did something wrong and now must 'pay a debt to society.' You're likely familiar with language from the Old Testament that reads '…an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.' This language describes retribution.

Retribution is backward-looking, because it looks back to the crime committed and seeks to match an appropriate punishment to the wrongful act. Notice how the biblical language doesn't state 'an eye for a tooth,' and how the truant student isn't the criminal who receives the death penalty.

But experts agree that retribution doesn't work perfectly. For one thing, retribution assumes criminals have free will to choose their actions and therefore should be held accountable for their actions. This sounds good in theory, but it discounts factors such as psychiatric problems and child abuse that can have a substantial impact on choices. It also discounts the dozens of criminal laws that don't require any intentional wrongdoing in order to be punished, such as statutory rape and even negligent homicide.

Also, keep in mind that retaliation is a subjective concept. Who's to decide how much punishment is enough punishment? What is retributive enough, and what is going too far? This is a common subject of debate when discussing 'three strikes' laws. These are laws in some states that require people convicted of three felonies to serve harsh sentences, sometimes up to life in prison, even for non-violent felonies such as drug possession or shoplifting.


The other four goals of punishment fall under prevention, which punishes wrongdoers in order to prevent future crimes. Think of prevention as forward-thinking rather than backward-looking.

The first of these goals is incapacitation. This means an offender who is restrained from crime can't commit further crimes. This usually means the offender is restrained by being sentenced to prison. However, there are also other forms of incapacitation. The death penalty is the highest level of incapacitation, and house arrest is also fairly common. Older, no-longer-used forms of incapacitation include castrations and lobotomies.

Incapacitation has its opponents. Some criticisms include:

  • Incapacitation is temporary since it only works while the criminal is in prison.
  • Incapacitation simply shifts crime from outside the prisons to inside the prisons.
  • Incapacitation is expensive for taxpayers because it can cost almost $30,000 a year to house each inmate.


The next goal of prevention is deterrence. Generally speaking, deterrence is based on the natural law that humans seek pleasure and avoid pain. Translated to a goal of punishment, deterrence means that people won't commit crimes if the pain of punishment outweighs the pleasure of the crime.

There are actually two different types of deterrence. The first is specific deterrence, which is geared toward discouraging a particular offender from offending again. For example, if Truman is convicted of truancy and sent to an alternative school, then hopefully he'll dislike it enough to never skip school again.

The second is general deterrence, which is geared toward discouraging people other than the offender from committing the same or a similar offense. In other words, hopefully Truman's classmates and friends will hear that Truman was caught and punished, and they will be discouraged from skipping school.

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