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Ethics of Punishment: Correctional Practice Implications

NCJ Number
Aggression and Violent Behavior Volume: 14 Issue: 4 Dated: July/August 2009 Pages: 239-247
Tony Ward; Karen Salmon
Date Published
July 2009
9 pages
This paper outlines three major theories of punishment as applied to convicted offenders and discusses their implications for the ethical challenges of rehabilitation practice.
One theory of punishment, called "consequentialism," argues that there is a contingent relationship between the overall goal of crime reduction and the practice of punishment. This involves structuring adverse consequences for certain behaviors prohibited by law, so as to deter, incapacitate, or reform offenders, which in turn reduces the crime rate. One ethical challenge of this theory for rehabilitation practitioners is that the focus on manipulating and controlling offenders by attaching adverse consequences to particular behaviors undermines the dignity and autonomy of the individual. A second theory of punishment, called "retribution," justifies punishment as intrinsic to ensuring that criminal behavior that inflicts harm on victims also brings approximately equal harm to perpetrators. Although punishment may not actually reduce crime, it is still necessary in order to balance the moral ledger. A major implication of this theory of punishment is that correctional practice involves only ensuring that punishment is properly inflicted without regard to its impact on the psychological well-being, subsequent behavior, and future life course of the offender. A third theory of punishment, called "communicative," has a relationship focus. From this perspective, offenders are viewed as members of a normative community (i.e., "one of us"), such that they are bound and protected by the community's public values: autonomy, freedom, privacy, and pluralism. The notion of equal moral status means that punishment should seek to persuade, rather than force, offenders to take responsibility for their crimes. The aim of punishment becomes the structuring of the offender's environment and contacts so as to offer opportunities for him/her to examine personal values, associated behaviors and consequences, and consider how change can be beneficial. 36 references