Let the Punishment Fit the Crime

The Dark Ages were characterized by rough, physical punishment, often including public floggings. During the Dark Ages many believed that people who committed offenses against society, did so either because they were possessed by evil or inhabited by demons. There was also the belief that the infliction of pain was a means by which evil could be removed from an individual. This infliction of pain, especially in a public arena, they believed, acted as a deterrent to others contemplating similar crimes. The French Aristocracy soon found their crime deterrent measures acting as promotional measures, when the general populace turned on them for their cruelty and “deafness” to their poverty and abuse. Still, remnants of this philosophy found their way into the American justice system in that during the early years of prisons and punishment in this country, treatment of offenders was usually brutal.

As society evolved and more people became aware of the conditions and treatment afforded those sentenced, the Dark Ages gave way to a more humane approach. The constitution of the United States was at the heart of these reforms. Our society values human rights and the wishes of the people who make up the society. This view operates on the theory that people are willing to play by the rules, that individuals are willing to sacrifice for the greater good and that everyone “wants” to do what is right. Chief Justice Burger of the U.S. Supreme Court made the following point: “The way a society treats those who have transgressed against it is evidence of the essential character of that society.”

Throughout history the approach to the punishment of crime has swung back and forth between “less” and “more” in its intensity and severity. Much of this pendulum action has to do with the shifts in societies, the level and intensity of crime (how safe people feel) and the economy. Because of all this “motion” the justice system has developed and continues to develop a variety of sanctions the courts can use to mete out punishment.

Sanctions allow the judge to weigh the costs and benefits to the defendant and society when sentencing someone convicted of a crime. It also allows the judge more flexibility in attempting to match a punishment to a crime. Current sanction options may include:

Diversionary programs offer treatment over imprisonment.

Fines are often used in misdemeanor cases.

Probation can be used for first offenses of a non-violent nature or as a second half of sentencing to allow for transition back into society and alleviate prison overcrowding.

Intermediate sanctions such as boot camp or electronic monitoring may be used in cases where more intensive probationary approaches are required.

Confinement is usually applied where up to a year in jail is dictated by the offense, but in some cases work release or weekend confinement may be given.

Incarceration is the result of a crime committed that warrants the individual be removed from society.

The death penalty, the highest sanction possible, would be indicated in a case of murder in a state allowing this sanction.

Despite all the theories put forward to explain why individuals commit crime, we still have no definitive answer as to why. It is a bit like trying to treat a disease for which we have no cure. It is all experimentation. Because human beings are totally unique, it is unlikely that we will ever identify a single “trigger” that initiates criminal behavior. So, there will unlikely be a definitive answer to the question of punishment fitting the crime. How many factors can we realistically take into account when attempting to mete out punishment? Who will be able to say that the punishment does indeed fit the crime? There is, again, no definitive answer. The best we can hope for in today’s justice system is a well trained, fair minded, capable judge who will use the sanctions available to him or her to serve the community and society as a whole.

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