The Aims of Punishment

Punishment: something done to a person because they have broken a law

Protection: keeping the public from being harmed, threatened or injured by criminals

Retribution: an aim of punishment – to get your own back: ‘an eye for an eye’

Deterrence: an aim of punishment – to put people off committing crimes

Reform: an aim of punishment – to change someone’s behaviour for the better

Vindication: an aim or punishment that means offenders must be punished to show that the law must be respected and is right

Reparation: an aim of punishment designed to help an offender to put something back into society

In the dockThis is one of the most important sections of this topic. Each religion, and indeed each society, has its own views on how and why we punish criminals. Most people want to stop crime happening, but they see this as being achieved in different ways. Individual and religious beliefs will thus affect which of the aims of punishment you think is most important and thus the types of punishment you consider using.

For example, an Ultra-Orthodox Jew who believes in the authority of Torah as God-given law would care about VINDICATION to show that God must be listened to and His laws obeyed. A Christian who believed in FORGIVENESS might highlight REFORM as being more important in allowing the criminal a chance to change and become a better person. In China and the U.S.A. (and others) there is a death penalty which clearly aims at DETERRING others from committing crime, as it certainly cannot aim at REFORMING the criminal!


If the main aim of punishment is protection we are concerned with keeping the general and law-abiding public safe. This will mean more custodial sentenced (prison) and less community service and electronic tagging. Criminals who are in prison cannot re-offend, whereas a prisoner on parole or working in the community can still pose a risk.


“24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” – Eye-for-an-EyeExodus 21:24-5

Retribution is about revenge or getting your own back for something that has been done wrong to you. The quote above is based on the ancient law of retribution (lex talionis) which simply did to the offender whatever had been done to the victim. However, a person who kills more than one person cannot be killed twice and some crimes are non-intentional so need to be dealt with in different ways. It seems to be the motivation behind the families of victims being able to watch the execution of murderers under some American laws.


Simply, this means putting other people off from committing the crime. The death penalty is often justified by its deterrent effect; I’m not going to do x if I think I might be killed for doing it. However, there is little evidence to show it is actually effective. You can look more at this in the section on capital punishment. Crucifixion, the method of capital punishment used to kill Jesus, was an attempt at deterrence. Roadsides are lined with the bodies of criminals, tied to crosses, to warn people coming into a city what will happen to them if they break the laws there.

Traditionally Christians and Jews could threaten people with EXCOMMUNICATION for failing to obey religious laws; this meant kicking them out of the religion. For Catholics this was particularly serious as if you are denied communion, confession and / or last rites you will go to Hell.


Florida_Department_of_CorrectionsThere is a reason that America calls its prison service the ‘Department of Correction’ (and it’s not just to sound Orwellian), it’s because they want to use punishment to make people into better people. We call it a prison ‘service’ because we are trying to help people. In most Western counties, and certainly in most Christian countries, it is accepted that the main purpose of punishment is REFORM. We want people to learn from their mistakes, to REPENT of the harm they might have done and to go on to live better lives.

In real terms this means providing criminals with the opportunity to get a better education; helping them to meet with the victims of the crimes so that they better understand the harm they have done or work within that community to pay back the harm they have done, such as serving a community service order. Therapy and education are seen as key to the modern prison service and only recidivist criminals kept in prison.


Vindication is important if we want people to obey the law. If people are going to obey it they must respect it, or at the very least be afraid of it. If I understand the reasons for the speed limit I am more likely to obey it. If I see another driver getting pulled over I am even more likely to obey it. If everyone breaks a law and no-one ever gets punished people will not respect that law. Consider biros. Technically, if I lend you a biro and you don’t return it; that is theft but we just don’t see it that way because no-one ever get prosecuted for not returning a biro. If we had a death penalty for biro theft then we’d be more likely to respect the law here. Consider homework…


Reparation is about RESTORATIVE JUSTICE, in other words ‘rebalancing the scales’ when a wrong has been done. In simple terms, if you steal a fiver from me and you are forced to pay back a fiver then everything is once again right with the world. Criminals being asked to clean up a wall when they have been found guilty of graffitiing it, or rebuilding a building they burned down would be examples of reparation. Compensation payments in civil (tort) law are often used (an abused) in this way.

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