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Home > Law & Legal Topics > Law Articles > Criminal Law > Article

The Goals of Criminal Punishment: Impact on the Sentencing Judge

The role of the jury in criminal cases is to determine the guilt or innocence of criminal defendants. Juries are not called on to determine what criminal punishment to apply to a defendant. The judge usually makes these determinations in criminal cases. The sentencing judge may consider a number of goals in deciding which punishment to impose. These goals can be classified as deterrence, retribution, and rehabilitation.


The Goal of Deterring Crime

Deterring future crime is one goal of criminal sentencing. The idea is that pain inflicted by punishment is justifiable if, but only if, it is expected to result in a reduction in the pain of crime that would otherwise occur.

This is based on the assumption that human beings are rational actors who balance the expected benefits of the proposed conduct against its risks, considering such factors as the likelihood of successful commission of the crime, the risk of detection and conviction, and the severity of the likely punishment. It is thought that the rational actor will avoid criminal activity if the perceived pain (i.e., the punishment) outweighs the expected pleasure (i.e., the criminal rewards).

Deterrence can be viewed as it relates to the population in general and to the criminal actor as an individual. This is often described using the terms general deterrence and specific deterrence.

With general deterrence, a person is punished in order to convince the general community to forego criminal conduct in the future. Thus, the individual criminal is used as a means to a desired end, namely, a net reduction in crime. The individual criminal’s punishment teaches us what conduct is not allowed. It also instills fear of punishment in would-be violators of the law.

Specific deterrence refers to an individual being punished to deter future misconduct by that specific individual. This may involve imprisoning the individual to prevent him from committing crimes. It may also remind the individual that if he returns to a life of crime, he will experience more pain (i.e., criminal punishment).

The sentencing judge who wishes to deter crime may opt to impose harsher sentences on criminals he feels are more likely to commit future crimes or who have committed crimes that are widely publicized. On the other hand, the sentencing judge would be less likely to impose harsher sentences on criminals he feels are less likely to commit future crimes or whose crimes have not been widely publicized.

The Goal of Retribution

Obtaining justice for the victims of crime and for society is also a goal of criminal sentencing. This is often referred to using the term retribution. The idea behind retribution is that punishment is justified when it is deserved.

Retribution looks backward and justifies punishment solely on the basis of the voluntary commission of a crime. This is based on the assumption that humans possess free will, and, therefore, may rightly be blamed when they choose to violate society’s mores.

Like deterrence, retribution can be viewed from several vantage points. Retribution can be viewed as a dislike for criminals themselves. This is often referred to as assaultive retribution. This notion says that it is morally right to hate criminals because criminals have harmed society and it is morally right to hurt him back.

Protective retribution views punishment as a means of securing a moral balance in the society. The theory is that society is made of rules and equilibrium exists as long as everyone follows the rules. Everyone is similarly benefited and burdened by the rules.

If a person fails to exercise self-restraint, he destroys the balance and becomes a free-rider. He benefits from the system of rule without accepting the same burdens as everyone else. By punishing the wrongdoer, society demonstrates its respect for him - society treats him as a responsible moral agent. Also, punishment allows the offender to pay his debt to society and to return to it free of moral guilt and stigma.

Retribution can also be viewed as victim vindication. According to victim vindication, by committing an offense, a criminal implicitly sends a message to the victim and society that his rights and desires are more valuable than those of the victim. Punishment corrects this false claim. It reaffirms the victim’s worth as a human being in the face of the criminal’s challenge.


The sentencing judge who wishes to obtain retribution may be more likely to impose a harsher sentence on criminals whose crimes cased the most harm to victims or to society.

The Goal of Rehabilitation

Rehabilitation of the criminal is also a goal of criminal sentencing. With rehabilitation, the emphasis is on using the correctional system to reform the wrongdoer rather than to secure compliance through the fear of punishment. This model seemingly preserves the concept of redemption evident in Judeo-Christian values. The sentencing judge who wishes to rehabilitate the criminal may be more inclined to consider alternatives to incarceration or sentencing alternatives, such as half way houses, drug rehab, and job placement programs.

The goal the sentencing judge has in mind can have an impact on the sentence the criminal defendant receives. Let’s take a closer look at criminal sentencing.

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