First, many people who commit crimes have themselves suffered from deprivation, injustice, abuse, addiction, and mental illness. Morally, we cannot reduce people to the sum of their heredity and environment. But there’s no denying that luck plays a large role in people’s circumstances and whether they commit crimes, and that these contingencies should mitigate the pain we inflict on offenders whenever possible.
Second, there’s the possibility of remorse and transformation. Retribution seems to imply that criminals must always be identified with their worst behavior. Of course, not everyone will experience sincere changes of heart. But to insist that offenders can do nothing to redeem themselves is both irrational and immoral.
Finally, there’s the radical utilitarian argument first advanced by Cesare Beccaria and Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century, which claims that all pain is bad — even the pain of a wrongdoer. It follows from this view that inflicting harm can be justified only to prevent something worse, and so retribution for its own sake has no part to play in a fair system of justice.
Even those who reject this radical view — who believe that retribution does have a place in the machinery of criminal justice — should agree that it cannot justify the evils we find in U.S. prisons today. The system’s gross lack of proportionality, its failure to treat like cases alike, and its harmful consequences for prisoners and communities are incompatible with a humane and decent society.
This article was originally published by Aeon, a digital magazine for ideas and culture. Author Judith Lichtenberg