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Central Purpose of Criminal Punishment


The purpose of criminal punishment is one of the central problems in legal polemics. Even though all theories consider penalty to be a deserved retribution for the crime and an act of legal regulation, the nuances differ. Garland proposes the following definition of the penalty: “It is the legal process whereby violators of criminal law are condemned and sanctioned in accordance with specified legal categories and procedures” (Garland, 1990, p.17).

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Sentencing Philosophy and the Central Purpose of Criminal Punishment

It is possible to classify the theory of punishment into two main ideas: consequentialism and non-consequentialism. Consequentialists believe that an action can be called good or illegal solely on the basis of all results, caused by the misdemeanor. The action can be viewed as a good one, if the results were better than they could be in all alterative variants. To the contrary, a bad action is the wrong choice from all possible alternative scenarios.

Consequentialists argue about the meaning of good and bad sequences. Classical utilitarians believe the good or bad actions depend on how they reinforce or break the happiness of the majority. Modern consequentialists offer anther criteria. For example, J. Braithwaite and P. Pettit believed that "sovereignty", guaranteed freedom of the citizens and the rule of law were the most important benefits to be increased and emphasized (Braithwaite, 1998, pp.323–344).

A common feature of consequentialist interpretations is that they define punishment as a possible tool to provide certain, yet not associated with the crime, objective good. An important issue is whether the punishment is a necessary and an effective means of achieving these benefits. The main idea for the justification of the penalty institution is empirical data on the effects of penalties and possible alternatives to it. The greatest problem of consequentialist system is that according to it, everyone can be accused of crime, if this penalty can help in achieving certain aims.

On the other hand, non-consequentialists insist on the idea that actions can be good or bad according to their natural character, regardless of the consequences they generate. This approach is vivid in the idea that only the guilty person deserves punishment. The main issue of non-consequentialism is the explanation of the idea of retribution. The punishment can be called a natural public response to crime. Consequentialist theory of punishment is promising, since it considers punishment to be an effective method of achieving certain good purposes in the nearest future. Non-consequentialist theory proposes a retrospective approach and is based on the idea of the natural origin of punishment and equality of the penalty to the illegal action that was made. This kind of retribution is also known as being Biblical idea “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and a life for a life”, or the lex talionis (Hudson, 1996, p.38).

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Thus, non-consequentialists believe that the purpose of punishment is its execution. Consequentialists view the link between punishment and its purpose, which makes the theory purely probabilistic. These two theories view punishment from different perspective, though it is crucial to understand that every penalty has to be legal and deserved, because the philosophical discussion is about human’s life.

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