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

Since the days of guillotines that sent heads rolling, the justice system has been integral in defending fundamental human values by meting out appropriate punishments to those who violate the law. However,  the nature of the system, its objectives and its symbolism in society remains largely subject to debate, given the fluidity of such human constructs. There seems to have been a gradual shift in attitudes about how the incriminated should be dealt with. Numerous forward-looking societies such as that of Norway have begun to take a rehabilitative approach to the incarcerated, such that wrongdoers are therapized and trained in order to restore the normality of their lives. Some countries like Singapore, however, where capital punishments remain a legal option, still hold fast to uncompromising means of punishment as a form of retribution for offences. Nevertheless, punishment is merely a counter to violations of the law whereas rehabilitation is a solution that serves to disentangle the problem faced by prisoners. Hence, I believe that rehabilitation should be the purpose of the justice system, not punishment.

While some argue against the imposition of harsh penalties, one must acknowledge that there are logical and sound reasons for doing so. The justice system ensures fairness. If one were to commit a crime against humanity, he or she would unarguably bear a fault that needs to be properly atoned for. This is where the justice system becomes instrumental in compensating for the injustice faced by the victims through properly dealing with the severity of their offenses, as well as to provide a sense of closure to the innocent. For instance, sentencing the infamous serial killer Ted Buridy may not have been able to revive the 30 deceased victims whom he was charged for murdering, but it offered relatives and loved ones of the murdered an outlet for emotional catharsis to see the one responsible for their anguish experience an equal amount of grief.  Mild, rehabilitative treatments may threaten the authority of the law should the collective receive the wrong message that they will be leniently pardoned for their sins, no matter how grave. For these reasons, many societies are inclined to adopt the ‘eye for an eye’ mentality of punishing offenders to a degree similar to their own crimes, both as a deterrent to future infringements of the law as well as to establish discipline and order.

One the other hand, many countries have opted to revise the frameworks of their justice system to ones that are more rehabilitative, rather than punitive. One of the reasons behind this is that rehabilitation is actually a more economical alternative to hefty jail sentences. A form of rehabilitation is providing educational opportunities within the prison. Criminologists have confirmed that prison education classes have been highly effective in reducing re-division rates, which refer to the likelihood of released prisoner to reoffend the law. It has been proven that prisoners in New York who earned a college degree while incarcerated were almost half as likely to get rearrested after being released as compared to inmates who did not. Consequently, by diminishing the number of reoffenders, prison population sizes will be kept to a minimum, which saves the government from needing to fork out exorbitant sums of money in the accommodation of prisoners. Whereas, when punishments is applied and recidivism rates worsen, more tax dollars will have to be allocated to police salary and welfare for those unable to support themselves after their release. Therefore, rehabilitation adds value not only to the lives of individual convicts but also has better effects on fiscal policy.

Moreover, rehabilitation is a more farsighted option than punishment as they have more benefits in the long-term. Consider how the lives of prisoners will unfold after their release. Had their time spent in imprisonment consist of empty, ritualistic days, it would have been as if they had simply not existed for a significant portion of their lives Reintegration back into society as an adaptable, functioning human being would then be deemed a Herculean task, which not many would be willing or able to undertake without the necessary assistance. This issue is especially crucial in the volatile 21st century world where changes to society are being made at a rate faster than ex-convicts are able to habituate to. However, prisoners who undergo vocational training during their incarceration will be equipped with the relevant skills needed for a smooth transition back into the workforce. The importance of these programmes was highlighted in a 2013 RAND corporation report, which testified that inmates with vocational training were more likely to find employment after serving their sentences and hence start a better life providing offenders a productive means of spending their jail time offers them an impetus to start afresh as well as a sense of agency in steering their lives back in the right direction, whereas punishment are a glaring reminder of their previous faults and may blind them from ever envisioning prospects of a better future. Hence, rehabilitation should be the primary objective of the justice system as it produces more long-term results than a stroke of a cane.

Lastly, rehabilitation is more effective than punishment as it directly tackles the root cause of criminality, which are often symptoms of societal issues. Punishments are, conversely, limited to being a form of discipline in response to delinquency. If the point of the justice system is to correct the mindset of lawbreakers, then it needs to investigate why these mindsets are flawed in the first place. By merely punishing criminals on a case-by-case basis, an assumption is being made that the crime committed is due to an isolated cause. In reality, crimes are the results of profound societal issues. One would see no need to steal if they had not been cornered by financial difficulties, nor would notorious street gangs be an issue of adequate counselling had been directed at misguided individuals. This is why corrupt countries that are riddled with societal and financial challenges often face higher crime rates, such as Mexico and Brazil. Rehabilitation trumps punishment in examining the individual circumstances of each prisoner and resolving matters such as poverty that are embedded in society. Punishment is solely reactionary in nature, while rehabilitation seeks to prevent more people from succumbing to the same unlawful temptations. Hence a punitive justice system may not be as effective as one that strives to avert and reform.

The misdeeds of offenders often send us into a blind rage, and understandably so,  is only natural to be repulsed at any actions that simply opposed cherished morals and values. Even so, however, we should take an occasional step back to assess these crime with a more objective lens and realize that criminals are victims themselves. Rehabilitation should take precedence over punishment as the purpose of the justice system, not as an admission of the incompetence of the justice system but a conscious process of growth in societal fellowship and a refinement of modern mindsets.

Kelly Hooy (19-O1)