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Criminal Sentencing

Updated on May 16, 2013
I sentence you to...
I sentence you to... | Source

by Amber Maccione

Purposes & Effectiveness of Criminal Sentencing

We live in a world filled with crime. For a society to function with crime, there needs to be set rules and regulations that help with deterring crime from happening, punishing crimes that occur, and making sure that those that commit the crimes learn how to live without a life of crime and give back to the society to repair that damage done. Therefore, sentencing is needed as a tool to control crime and punish those that commit a crime.

There is a saying that most are familiar with – “Don’t do the crime, if you can’t do the time.” Time refers to the sentencing – “the process by which a judge imposes punishment on a person convicted of a crime or crimes” (Wallace 2012 p. 302). The purpose of sentencing is to impose the right amount and the right kind of punishment in order to guide the criminal into realizing that the crime they committed will not be tolerated and to teach the criminal that there are better ways to get what they want outside of committing a crime.

There are five types of purposes for sentencing that Wallace and Roberson talk about in their book Principles of Criminal Law: deterrence, rehabilitation, incapacitation, retribution, and diversion. Deterrence is based on the fear of punishment (Wallace 2012 p. 302). Each degree of crime has a punishment that comes with it. For example, if one commits murder, the punishment depending on the degree of that crime can range from a few years in prison to the death penalty. Deterrence is based upon the fact that people will not commit the crime because they do not want the punishment. Society doesn’t commit the crime because they can’t or do not want to do the time. The other side of deterrence is that once one person commits the crime and is punished, the message is sent out to the rest of society that this or worse will happen to them if they choose to commit the same crime (Wallace 2012 p. 302). The concept of fear and setting an example are both ways to deter a person from committing a crime.

Another purpose of sentencing is rehabilitation. Rehabilitation is an attempt to try to remold the criminal into a productive person in society rather than a burden to society. Most of the time the criminal is sentenced to classes, counseling, training, etc. in order to teach them a better way of living and help change their way of thinking. These activities are offered to the criminal during incarceration or while out on parole/probation (Wallace 2012 p. 303).

Incapacitation is the third purpose of sentencing. Incapacitation is when the criminal is removed from society usually by being put in jail/prison. This is used to prevent the criminal from continuing to commit crimes within society while also protecting society from the criminal (Wallace 2012 p. 303).

The fourth purpose of sentencing is retribution where the criminal is to give back to society what he has taken. For example, if one steals, he is to pay back what he stole. This concept comes from the Bible – an eye for an eye (Wallace 2012 p. 303). With this concept of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, it sounds like revenge because you are taking the same from the person who took from you. Another outlook on retribution is the theory of “just desserts”, which sets out to give the criminal what he deserves – punishment for the crime that he committed (Wallace 2012 p. 303). Basically, the concept of retribution allows the victim (society) to take from the criminal what he took from them by giving him punishment that is equal to that crime (Wallace 2012 p. 303).

The last purpose of sentencing is diversion. Diversion allows the punishment to be lessoned if the criminal agrees to follow instructions from the judge (Wallace 2012 p. 303). One example of this is the pre-trail diversion programs where a person is required to plea guilty but is given a lesser charge or the charge is dropped as long as the person attends certain classes, finishes probation, agrees to drug testing, does community service, etc. As long as the criminal completes the diversion program to the judges satisfaction and does not commit another crime during the time period allotted then the agreement on the judges part is granted.

With every plan, there needs to be purpose as well as effectiveness. Without effectiveness, the purpose behind the plan will be lost. The purpose guides the plan, but effectiveness makes sure that the purpose of the plan is seen, understood, and learned – it is the most important part. With that, rehabilitation has the most effective ways of handling crime and preventing it from happening again rather than deterrence, incapacitation, retribution, and diversion.

Wright explains deterrence in a very enlightening way. She points out that research has shown that increasing the certainty of punishment rather than the severity of punishment is the best way to deter an individual from committing crime (Wright 2010 p. 1). The problems though are first that we are assuming that all humans rationalize their actions and the consequences to come from those actions before they act, second that there is not a 100% arrest and conviction rate for every crime committed, and third not everyone is aware of the risks and consequences that could come from the crime if they commit it (Wright 2010 p. 2-3).

We all know that not all people who commit crimes rationalize their actions and the consequences. People do crimes while intoxicated or high. They aren’t in their right state of mind and are usually thinking of instant gratification. In order to rationalize before acting, you have to be sober and be able to clearly think of both the pros and cons of an action before deciding to do it. Those that are intoxicated or high do not have the ability to do that because they are not thinking clearly.

With the fact that not all people who commit a crime are caught and convicted puts a damper on deterrence because one can think that they have a chance of doing a crime and getting away with it. If I have a chance of getting away with a crime that could benefit me, the benefits might outweigh the consequences and I am not deterred because there is a chance I will not be caught.

The other problem is not knowing about the sanctions. If I am not aware of what might come of me when committing a crime and then getting caught, there is no deterrence because I am not aware of the consequences. The key to deterrence is the certainty of getting caught and the consequences that follow from that.

Incapacitation is not effective either according to Stuart Henry who wrote “On the Effectiveness of Prison as Punishment.” In his paper, he states that education has a better effect on changing a criminal and preventing him from committing crime again rather than imprisoning him. I would agree. I have someone say that they had to go to prison to become a criminal. There is a proverb that says that you become like those you hang around. So why would you put a bunch of criminals with a bunch of criminals thinking that that will help prevent crime? They will just rub off each other and learn more about criminal acts and possibly how to get away with it the next time.

Retribution although reputable is not effective because it “does very little in changing the offender in terms of reformation, and as such it is not a guaranteed to help in avoiding future crimes” ( 2011). Some forms of retribution are community service and fines. Criminals see this as punishment or as a light sentence. Retribution to the criminal does not carry enough severity in order to deter them from committing the crime again or another crime.

Diversion also falls into the same category of retribution in the sense that it too is seen as a lighter sentence for the criminal. Instead of getting the punishment that deterrence would have shown the criminal to get, it gives a lighter sentence and does not carry the severity to deter the criminal from committing the crime again. At the same time though, diversion also provides the opportunity for the criminal to be educated as is the prime reason why rehabilitation is the most effective out of all five of the purposes of sentencing. Instead of being told to give back (retribution), diversion can sentence the criminal to classes, counselling, and training that will help the criminal be rehabilitated.

This brings me to rehabilitation as being the most effective way to deter a criminal from committing crime. As Henry stated, “Research over the past 10 years has consistently demonstrated that the most effective way to reduce offending and particularly reoffending is through education” (Henry 2003). Rehabilitation offers the opportunity to remold a criminals way of living, thinking, and viewing of the world. In order to change, you have to start doing things differently. A wise man is the one who sees that how he is doing things now is not working and that he needs to start doing things differently in order to get different results.

The reoccurring theme of sentencing is to stop crime from happening and to make sure that the criminal will not commit crime again. The purpose overall is to have a society without crime. Sentencing has five purposes: deterrence, rehabilitation, incapacitation, retribution, and diversion. Out of those five, rehabilitation has the most effective way of producing the desired result – prevent crime and make sure it doesn’t happen again. With education, training and counseling that comes from rehabilitation, there is hope that all mankind will have a mindset and sense of morals that will eliminate crime all together.

References (2011). “Different modes of punishment and their

effectiveness.” Retrieved from


Henry, S. (2003). “On the effectiveness of prison as punishment.” South Bend: Ivy Tech

State College. Retrieved from

Wallace, H. & Roberson, C. (2012). Principles of criminal law (5th ed.). Boston:

Pearson Allyn & Bacon.

Wright, V. (2010). “Deterrence in criminal justice: evaluating certainty vs. severity of

punishment.” Washington, D.C.: The Sentencing Project. Retrieved from

Copyright © 2012


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