8.1. A Brief History of The Philosophies of Punishment

David Carter

A Brief History of Punishment

Feeling safe and secure in person and home is arguably one of the most discussed feelings in our nation today. The “fear of crime” influences how we think and act day to day. This has caused great fluctuation in the United States in regards to how we punish people who are convicted of violating the law. In part, punishment comes from the will of the people, which is then carried out through the legislative process, and converted into sentencing practices. People have differing views on why people should be punished, and how much punishment they should receive. These correctional ideologies, or philosophical underpinnings of punishment, have been prevalent throughout history, and are not brand new in the United States. This section details basic concepts of some of the more frequently held punishment ideologies, which include: retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation.

In the News: One of the more frequently used statistics in the news about crime is homicides in the United States. Often, you will hear something about a homicide rate or the number of homicides in a state, or a city for a particular year. An interesting clarifier about this number is that it typically does not include a number of deaths in prison. Deaths in prison occur every year, yet these are not normally counted in any statistic. In 2014, there were approximately 3,927 deaths that occurred in prisons in the United States. There are a variety of reasons for these deaths, to include homicide. For more information on this, look up – Mortality in Correctional Institutions (MCI). This is also formerly known as Deaths in Custody Reporting Program (DCRP). The Bureau of Justice Statistics houses and publishes data on this phenomenon. Additionally, this is a voluntary reporting structure, which may actually not capture all deaths that occur in prison. https://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=dcdetail&iid=243

Philosophies of Punishment Example

Two stories come on during the crime section of the 6 o’clock news. In the first story, a man is described as a convicted sex offender. He is living at an address that you know is in your city. Citizens that live on the streets nearby his address are shown picketing in front of his house, voicing their displeasure that he is allowed to live there. The video shows how angry the neighborhood is, and you can visibly see their frustration and angst on the people’s faces in the news clip.

The second story is of a woman who was detained (shown in the back of a squad car) for stealing food from a local grocery store, apparently to feed her children. The store manager is then on the screen describing that he is offering to donate the food to her so that she does not have to spend time in jail or get into any more trouble.

How do these two stories make you feel? Is it the same feeling for each story? Does one of these stories make you feel more afraid of crime? More angry or upset? Which one? Who deserves to get punished more? How much punishment should they get? The answers to questions like these instantly flood our thoughts as we are watching news blurbs like this, and in general, when we hear about a crime. This is all normal. And, this process is what generates our own personal punishment ideology.

Now, which one of these two individuals has actually committed a crime? A second point to this story is that our perceptions of punishment can be influenced by the narrative (what is presented to us).

Although the change in our overall perception or use of the rehabilitation ideology is slow, it is necessary. As we will see in the next sections, our reliance on the “Brick and Mortar” approach to punishment comes at a great cost, and the results are less than desirable.


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8.1. A Brief History of The Philosophies of Punishment Copyright © 2019 by David Carter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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