What is Punitive Justice? - Definition & Examples

Instructor: Millicent Kelly

Millicent has been teaching at the university level since 2004. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Criminal Justice and a Master's degree in Human Resources.

Punishment has been a central focus of the United States criminal justice system since its inception.This lesson will look at punitive justice by distinguishing it from restorative justice and look at examples of each to add clarification.

Justice for a Serial Killer

Most of us have heard of Ted Bundy, one of America's most notorious serial killers. It is estimated that Bundy began his murderous cross-country rampage sometime around 1974, carefully targeting his unsuspecting victims with his boyish charm and good looks. In the end, he was connected to 36 murders, although many suspect he committed dozens more. He was sentenced to death and was executed in 1989 after exhausting all of his appeals. Bundy's case is an example of the delivery of punitive justice.

A Brief History of Punitive Justice

Punitive justice, which is also referred to as retributive justice, is intended to punish criminal offenders like Ted Bundy. The United States punitive justice system dates back to Colonial times and British common law. In those days justice could be swift but was not always equitable. William Penn changed that by promoting a more fair justice system and advocating for housing in which to confine criminals.

As time passed and more and more immigrants entered the United States, a shift towards rehabilitation was embraced by the criminal justice system. Crime in the 1960's and 70's, however, shifted focus again towards more punitive measures as riots, drugs, and gangs caused a public outcry for swift justice. Today, there is still a strong focus on punitive justice, although proponents for restorative justice, or justice intended to rehabilitate offenders, are making headway in the face of prison overcrowding.

Punitive vs. Restorative Justice

Let's take a closer look at punitive versus restorative justice.

Punitive Justice

As mentioned previously, the purpose of punitive justice is to punish criminal offenders for their actions. Some characteristics of punitive justice include:

  • the belief that punishment alters a person's actions
  • that the criminal will only take responsibility through punishment
  • the belief that the infliction of pain will deter future criminal behavior
  • a belief that action should be met with similar action

Punitive justice seeks to remove people from society and incarcerate them in penal institutions. It is estimated that over 2 million Americans are currently incarcerated. When the system seeks to punish rather than rehabilitate, many of those who are incarcerated will repeat their actions upon release and become caught in the cycle of incarceration when they are returned to penal institutions eventually.

Some Examples of Punitive Justice

  • John is waiting for a bus when he sees the perfect opportunity to snatch a wallet out of a woman's unzipped purse. He's down and out on his luck and in desperate need of cash. Without giving it another thought John takes the wallet and starts running. A short time later, he is arrested about a mile away and charged with assault and theft. A judge sentences John to three years in jail.
  • Ann just turned 18 years old. She is caught up with a rough crowd who are involved in dealing illegal drugs. She is in the car when one of the people she is with opens fire and shoots another drug dealer. Ann helps to load the body in the car and together they drive the body to a dump site. A few days later Ann and her friends are arrested. Although she has never been in trouble before, Ann now faces a possible 15 to 20-year sentence as an accessory to murder after the fact.

Restorative Justice

Proponents for restorative justice believe that justice should have a rehabilitative focus rather than a punitive one. Some characteristics of restorative justice include:

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