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Should Incarceration Serve as Rehabilitation or Retribution

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Incarceration refers to the state of being confined in a prison. It may also mean detention, custody or captivity. This is usually as a result of a crime committed, and serves the offender as a form of punishment. It is meant to deter others from committing crimes, and to rehabilitate criminals. Rehabilitation on the other hand, refers to the process of restoring someone to a useful place in the society. People are not treated completely as criminals, but are engaged in useful activities so that they can be of importance to the society. This also helps a person to be self-sufficient. It is aimed at preventing habitual offending. It can either be through education or therapy. This brings the criminal into a more peaceful state. Retribution is a severe punishment for a serious offense.

By contrast, the rehabilitation model of sentencing is expressed through strategies designed to reform the offender’s character. It is based on a different, and in my view a more realistic, behavioral premise. It assumes that criminal offenses are to a significant extent determined by social structures, particular individual circumstances or psychological influences. Offenders are seen as needing help to change their behavior, by changing their circumstances through a range of different programs such as individual counseling, therapy, family intervention, education, and training. This approach to sentencing is particularly forward-looking since it indicates that sentences should be tailored to the needs of individual offenders.

Historical overview
The topic of offender rehabilitation, particularly offender treatment, has been greatly revived over the past decade. This comes with a brief consideration of the moral basis of rehabilitation, perhaps favoring a utilitarian stance in which rehabilitation should be a proven means by which to reduce crime. In this empirical light, summaries of the meta-analyses of offender treatment are presented. The meta-analyses have provided a major impetus for offender treatment over the past decade, helping define the principles of effective practice. One consequence of the meta-analyses has been the rise in popularity of offending behavior programs.

The desirability of behavior change programs has been widely debated in the clinical psychology literature. Penalties for criminal behavior were initially accorded huge publicity. The administration of Justice was a public event. This was always done in a bid to shame offenders. It was also viewed as a way of deterring others who may be contemplating engaging in any form of criminal activities, specifically the one being punished at the given time. Criminals were placed in the ducking stool, pilloried, whipped and branded. During the early years, the main punishment was death. The prison used to be a place where people were detained prior to their trial.

Those who had been sentenced were also placed in prisons as they awaited their punishment. It was uncommon for prison to serve as punishment on its own right. People were never sorted in prison based on any grounds. Men, women, boys, and girls were placed in the same place as they awaited sentence and punishment. Historical evidence of the early period suggests that the prisons of the time were poorly maintained. They were always in deplorable conditions. This was done intentionally by negligent prison warders who were often left to control them. In the end, people in prisons would easily contract diseases and eventually die. The most important innovation in the formative years of prisons was the building of the prototype house of correction, the London Bride well.

Houses of correction were originally a section of the machinery of the Poor Law. The main intention of the poor law was to instill habits of industry through prison labor. Most of those the people held up in correctional facilities at the time were petty offenders. These included vagrants and local people who were disorderly. By the end of the seventeenth century, they were absorbed into the prison system, which was under the control of the local Justices of the Peace. Rehabilitative strategies came to the fore in many Western penal systems in the 1960s. They remain prominent in sentencing policies in many European countries. Although today community-based sanctions would be seen as the clearest rehabilitative type of sentence, the idea of the prison itself has a beneficial reforming effect has had a longer history. Modern-style imprisonment only became commonplace in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. This replaced corporal and capital punishment regimes and deportation.

The main principle on which prisons were established was that of enforced isolation, causing the offender to contemplate his or her sins and need for redemption. Throughout the nineteenth century the rhetoric of reformation persisted even within the harshest penal regimes. The reformative model then became reinvented in the twentieth century in terms of behavioral science, and reached its high point in the ‘medical’ or ‘treatment’ model widely accepted in US prisons in the 1960s. Rehabilitative programs are more easily tested for ‘success.’ Following one such test, support in the US for rehabilitative programs weakened, after the 1974 publication by Robert Martinson of ‘What Works? Questions and Answers about Penal Reform’. Martinson conducted a meta-analysis of over 200 studies that had assessed correctional and treatment programs to see if they ‘worked’, using criteria of recidivism.

His gloomy conclusion was that ‘with few and isolated exceptions, the rehabilitative efforts that have been reported so far have had no appreciable effect on recidivism’. He then questioned the very notion of rehabilitation itself, suggesting: ‘Our present treatment programs are based on a theory of crime as a ‘disease’ – that is to say as something foreign and abnormal in the individual which can presumably be ignored. This theory may well be flawed.’ (Crime and Punishment, Retribution or Rehabilitation). Although Martinson’s work had a positive effect in supporting ‘de-institutionalization’ and reinforcing the expansion of community-based sanctions, his findings were swiftly translated into the buzz phrase ‘Nothing works’, and this came to dominate a more punitive penal policy. But his conclusions have been subject to much criticism. Strong claims are still made for the efficacy of rehabilitative programs in Europe, and many argue that rehabilitative strategies were discarded prematurely in the US. The true position is that certain programs work for some types of offenses in some types of circumstance.

James McGuire, in a highly influential 1995 study, ‘What Works; Reducing Reoffending’, argued that certain types of treatment programs are successful, with treatment programs in the community being about twice as effective as those within prisons. Successful programs focus on the reasons why individuals offend, and those employing cognitive behavioral methodologies are found to work best. But while prison-based rehabilitation programs, like the Connect Project in Mount joy Prison are very necessary and worthwhile pursuing, they should not over concur with these broadly socio-legal developments. This might add to the despair of practitioners.

Philosophers were crafting their own arguments, reviving classic views associated with the names of Kant and Hegel to establish two principal ideas that fit surprisingly well with those reviewed above. First, philosophers argued that reformation of convicted offenders is not the aim, or even a subsidiary aim among several, of the practice of punishment. Aside from being an impractical goal, it is morally defective for two reasons: It fails to respect the convicted offenders’ autonomy, and it flouts the offenders’ right to be punished for the wrongdoing he intentionally caused. Second, justice or fairness in punishment is the essential task of sentencing, and a just sentence takes its character from the culpability of the offender and the harm the crime caused the victim and society. In short, just punishment is retributive punishment.

Philosophers reached these conclusions because they argued that there were irreducible retributive aspects of punishment in the very definition of the practice, in the norms governing justice in punishment, and in the purpose of the practice as well. Turn the generally accepted proposition that prison itself is not rehabilitative. As a result, the ground was cut out from under the dominant penal policy of mid-century, the indeterminate sentence in the service of the rehabilitative ideal for offenders behind bars. Probation as an essential alternative sanction received an expanded role, but release on parole came to a virtual end. In its place was a uniform determinate sentencing, which would avoid the follies of unachievable rehabilitative goals and ensure both incapacitation and even-handed justice for all offenders.

The culmination of this trend appears in the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, which spawned the United States Sentencing Commission and its Federal Sentencing Guidelines. The doctrine has not been without its critics, both in theory and in practice. But as the new century begins, no alternative approach shows any signs of supplementing the just deserts sentencing philosophy no matter how outrageous in practice the claim that a given disciplinary sentence is justly deserved may be in most cases. (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2010). At the time of the 1992 general election, the prison population was about 45,000 and falling. By 1997 it was over 63,500 and rising fast. The prison population in England and Wales today stands at a record 66,000 – an increase of 64% since 1992.

The Howard League for Penal Reform recently highlighted the Home Office’s own predictions that the number of men, women and children incarcerated in prisons could rise to 83,500 by 2008. Unfortunately, the Labor government has now effectively adopted the Tory Party’s stance on law and order, albeit with a slight softening of tone. Britain, thus presently seems to be moving away from Western European norms for the use of imprisonment, towards a level above that of several of the former Soviet Bloc countries. Even the proponents of present policy must admit that its effectiveness against crime is not supported by the great weight of research over the years; but then such ‘get tough’ policies are, in practice, usually rationalized in terms of pure retribution (Pollock, 2005).

Rehabilitation as a Method of Incarceration Time and again, rehabilitation, logic and statistics prove rehabilitation to be more effective than retribution. Many countries value rehabilitation highly since it has led to the reduction or abolishment of death penalties. Some of the lowest murder records in the world are accompanied by reasonably lower prison population. Rehabilitation is a system that works whether we like it or not. These criminals are also human beings; therefore, they deserve to be treated in a humane way. This implies that they deserve to be given second chances, but only if they admit to have messed up and are ready to go into the world again. A life sentence is wrong on every level unless they deserve it. This will deny them an opportunity to change for the better.

Rehabilitation can also act as a form of treatment to culprits, especially when they commit crimes under the influence of drugs. This can help them overcome drug use and drug abuse. On the other hand, when they are imprisoned, they become hateful and revenge oriented, therefore, they tend to engage more in drugs than before. The criminal justice system should focus more on rehabilitation since it proves through studies that recidivism can be reduced. Punishment in extreme cases should be done, but for those who have committed petty crimes, programs should be done to help them become better citizens through rehabilitation programs. Rehabilitation is also important since punishment turns innocent criminals into hardened jail maniacs. Those who commit petty crimes should be rehabilitated and taken back to the society.

This is because when they are jailed, they come out of jail hardened and unfit for the society, because they are mainly used to the life as an inmate. They even enjoy the security benefits that come with being imprisoned. Rehabilitation is also resourceful. This is because criminals are taught to be productive and give back to the society. Retribution in itself has no meaningful benefits. It does not allow the ideals of punishment because the purpose of the punishment is to give back to the society. It is only fair for the criminal to receive a sentence that is equal to the crime that he or she committed.

However, there is no such thing as equal punishment for an action. For example, those who come out of prison cannot attain a decent job. While yes, this convict was convicted for doing something wrong, he or she has fulfilled his or her time in prison. At the completion of their sentences they should be able to go on with life like other people. Unfortunately, the carryover effect of the sentence can ruin that person’s life. In this regard punishment is unfair, meaning retribution is unfair. This lends more support to the stance that rehabilitation is the only way to truly reform convicts. Retribution also fails to ensure that the accused is treated fairly. Retributive justice takes away the rights of the accused. The accused deserves ethical treatment and should not be condemned to a life of punishment.

We have a duty to punish offenders fairly and make sure that said punishment respects their rights as human beings. If a criminal cannot be rehabilitated it does not mean that we should treat the ones who can be rehabilitated the same way. (“Rehabilitation Has Greater Regard for the Offender”). Retribution as a Method of Incarceration On the other hand retribution can be preferred over rehabilitation. This is because criminals deserve to be punished. Due to their fragile mental state, they need to be taken under control since when such criminals are rehabilitated; potential criminals can think that acting violently is okay. Mass murders destroy the life of a lot of people with little to no sympathy.

This can never be right irrespective of the circumstances. Going by the say once a criminal always one, yes, criminals deserve to be punished to avoid further crimes. This is because when rehabilitated, they return with a revenge mission to the society. As a result, they may end up killing or committing more serious offenses, hence a harsh punishment is justified to law offenders. Crime gene can also be hereditary. An individual may engage in criminal activities just because they come from a criminal family. Such individuals cannot be easily corrected through rehabilitation since their criminal minds are inborn. The criminal justice system should focus more on retribution. This is because some people do not deserve to be released into society.

Murderers and rapists do not deserve a second chance. If the criminal justice system focuses more on rehabilitation we will be giving criminals a second chance. This would negatively affect our society in the long run. Criminals should also be made to pay for the wrongs they have committed. By doing this, potential criminals are likely to refrain from such crimes, therefore, making the society a better place to be. Our communities become safe for habitation. Although petty crimes can be handled by rehabilitation, repeat offenders should undergo more strict and severe punishment. Rehabilitation involves engaging the criminals in resourceful work. Therefore, they make use of the taxpayers’ money unnecessarily when the community can spend on other important projects. A sanction should not merely be helpful. It should treat the offending conduct as wrong.

The purpose of the punishment is to show disapproval of the offenders’ wrongdoing, and to clearly condemn his criminal actions. We punish to censure, not to help the person change for the better. That is the essence of retribution. This is because justice makes sense as the justification for punishment. Unless the criminal justice system responds to persons who have violated society’s rules by communicating, through punishment, the censure of that offending conduct, the system will fail to show society that it takes its own rules seriously. Crime is not pathology. It is not the product of circumstance, and it is certainly not the product of coincidence. It is the result of choices made by the individual, and therefore the justice system must condemn those choices when they violate society’s rules. Retributivism alone best recognizes the offender’s status as a moral agent, by asking that he take responsibility for what he has done, rather than to make excuses for it.

Many programs cannot overcome, or even appreciably reduce the powerful tendency for offenders to continue in criminal behavior. They simply do not work. ‘Rehabilitation’ is therefore a false promise. The danger with such an illusory and impossible goal is that it is used as a front to justify keeping offenders locked up for long. A psychologist, prison staff or parole officer cannot tell when a person has fully reformed or changed for the better. Therefore, it is important for criminals to be punished. By so doing, they would be greatly aware of the grave consequences of the crimes they have committed and are likely to avoid the same later. (“Should the criminal justice system focus more on rehabilitation than retribution?”). Personal Viewpoint In my opinion, I give an equal stance on both. Retribution and rehabilitation should be considered since the society is homogeneous. Given the necessary circumstances, either can be preferred to the other. If people can be rehabilitated, it would be great for them.

Rehabilitate and then free them. However, a lot of criminals can’t be rehabilitated. There are criminals who are best served by punishment. That is retributive justice. Retributive justice is a theory of justice that considers that punishment, if proportionate, is a morally acceptable response to crime. Give them justice like we are supposed to. Do not give murderers a second chance at more killing. Only rehabilitate if you can and when possible. As it is famously quoted in corridors of justice, justice should not only be done, but also appear to be done. It is important for the justice system to ensure that law offenders are treated according to the crimes. Petty crimes can be responded to by rehabilitation to enable culprit’s change for the better in order to give back to the society.

This brings hope to the family of the offenders and the offenders themselves that indeed there is an opportunity to correct one’s mistakes. Just like others, they too are people and deserve the chance. On the other hand, repeat offenders and serious crime offenders like rapists and murderers deserve to be punished severely since they make the society unsafe. With them around, members of the community live in fear. Some may argue that both should not be justified given the fact that the justice system tends to be corrupt, and individuals are likely to be convicted unfairly. The fact remains that the country is made up of a political system and the legal procedures that deal with criminal activities. This should be improved to ensure that criminals are treated fairly according to the crimes they commit. Conclusion

Despite the progressive policies being adopted in some countries like New Zealand, there has been a dramatic increase in the use of imprisonment. Matheson, the great Scandinavian penologist, has likened this phenomenon to Foucault’s ‘great confinement’ of the 1600s. It advocates a new penal policy involving a de-centering of the prison, so that ‘non-custodial sentences’ are prioritized. They should no longer be seen merely as alternatives to imprisonment. It is argued that only by adopting Matheson’s robust approach to the prison into our own policy, will custodial sanctions truly become penalties of last resort in the Irish penal system?

We need an enlightened and coherent sentencing policy, with less emphasis on imprisonment, but with clear guidelines for judges. Non-custodial sanctions should be considered as an approach to sentencing, which seeks to ensure a greater measure of consistency, while taking into account the need for rehabilitation of individual offenders. These conform  much to the principles of restorative justice. We need a coherent policy in order to create a just and effective penal system that deserves and retains public trust.


Bacik, Ivana. Crime and Punishment. Retribution or Rehabilitation. Retrieved on March 28, 2014, from http://www.lawlibrary.ie
Pollock, Joycelyn. (2005). The Philosophy and History of Prisons: San Marcos. Texas State
University. Jones & Bartlett Learning.
Punishment: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved on March 29, 2014, from
Rehabilitation Has Greater Regard for the Offender. Retrieved on 29 March 29, 2014, from
Should the Criminal Justice System Focus more on Rehabilitation than Retribution? Retrieved on
March 29, 2014, from http://www.debate.org

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