‘Rehabilitation, not punishment, should be the purpose of the justice system.’ Discuss.

Roman goddess of justice, Justitia, is better known in contemporary times as the statue of Lady Justice that commonly graces the architecture of courthouses. She embodies the judicial system: the set of scales she holds symbolises balance; the blindfold she dons represents impartiality, the sword she wields a marker of deft punishment and the toga she wears is a symbol of the philosophy of justice. It is these last two elements that have become polarising forces in recent years – the notion of uncompromising punishment versus a mere thoughtful process of rehabilitation. The purpose of the justice system is conventionally characterized by three tenants of Justice: incarnation, deterrence and rehabilitation, with the latter being often overshadowed by the former two and reserved an afterthought. The result is a justice system that convicts and punishes the guilty but struggles to help them stop offending. With reference to these three elements, this essay will make the case that rehabilitation should be the purpose of the justice system.

Punishment advocates would firstly attest to this system by its virtues of its moral simplicity and how it is executed in incarceration. They believe that fairness of the justice system lies in its irrevocable ultimatum that unlawfulness always begets harsh consequences. In other words, punishment is a criminal’s just deserts, a deserved tit for tat. In comparison to the seemingly straightforward rationale of punishment, rehabilitation is seen as an unjust leniency. For example, a maximum security prison in Norway easily resembles an affluent college campus, with classrooms, restaurant and specialised amenities like a music recording studio. This instinctively violates most persons’ conventions of poetic justice, especially when perpetrators of heinous crimes are perceived to be entitled to such concessions. Hence, many hardliners would argue that punishment is the fundamental righteous response towards crime and establishes an unequivocal baseline in the justice system, thus upholding the integrity of incarceration.

However, more judicious observers would realise that this clear-out moral code paints over the nuanced considerations of criminality in careless broad strokes. Criminal justice should not be administered through a one-size-fits-all method that punishment perpetuates, especially when there are crannies of the human psyche punishment alone cannot access. This need is further compounded by the increasingly complex motives of crimes. When local collaborators of the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah were detained in 2002. Counselling with religious clerics was pivotal in inoculating them against extremism. On the contrary, sole punishment from an authority they already despise would only reinforce their ideology. Hence, punishment served cold as means to elicit remorse can be akin to getting blood from a stone and shows tone-deafness to the specialised needs of convicts. Rehabilitation and its personalisation however nips a convict’s motive in the bud, healing the root of their soul sickness rather than just diagnosing its symptoms. Thus, rehabilitation holistically complements punishment in an inmate’s incarceration, even acting as the deal breaker in a successful reformation.

On the other hand, punishment is seen as a more powerful deterrent to the wider society. In light of the escalating number of hate crimes in the 2000’s, harsh punishment has become paramount in denouncing offences fueled by bigotry, thus stifling its perpetuation. Dylann Roof, the white supremacist behind the 2015 Charleston massacre, smugly proclaimed that he regretted nothing and he pleaded guilty on the podium. As the robber on nine lives, his eventual death sentence was met with public approval. It can be imagined that had he unrepentantly entered a rehabilitation facility while Charleston was left to pick up the pieces, society would have rioted, for fear of the precedence a light sentence would be set. While successful rehabilitation is contingent on one’s willingness to comply, punishment panders to man’s primal fears of pain, isolation and deprivation, thus effectively cultivating a culture of fear that manages society. Thus it can be argued that punishment is a more competent deterrent than rehabilitation.

However, this may be a gross generalisation that zeroes in on the minority of felons and felonies, resulting in the blind siding of the vast majority of criminals who are victims of circumstances or non-severe offenders eager to turn over a new leaf. We ignore the exploited youth at risk, the addicts helplessly embroidered in the war on drugs and the thieves born in poverty. To them, deterrents are inconsequential when crimes are a way to make ends meet, instead they require a recalibration. With vocational skills training, hobby exploration and therapy, this is precisely what rehabilitation offers. Conversely, when inadequately equipped (ex-convicts are reintegrated only to face unemployment and purposelessness, old habits die even harder.) So, rehabilitation does not just cure one’s soul sickness at the time of incarceration, it acts as a vaccination against the falling chronically ill again. Norway’s aforementioned campus-esque maximum security prison has contributed towards her internationally known low recidivism rates. In preventing recidivism, rehabilitation kills other resultant social ails such as single parenting. It can be posited that the growth mindset core to rehabilitation is vastly more sustainable than the culture of fear, deterrence perpetuates through punishment.

In conclusion, rehabilitation should not be seen as a separate entity from incarceration and deterrence but rather as an underlying principle that underpins their execution. As Martin Luther King Jr famously said “You cannot drive out darkness with darkness, only light can do that. You cannot drive out hate with hate, only love can do that.” By extrapolating this idea, Lady Justice should not counter crime’s ugly face by putting on an even scarier mark, or intimidate with a sharper sword. More than a figure of authority, she should also be a beacon of hope for change, dispenser of hard won second chances. Therefore, rehabilitation should be the purpose of the Justice system, assisted closely by incarceration and deterrence.

Grace Wee (19-O1)