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Critically Evaluate the Justifications for the Use of Punishment in Modern Society

It is controversial and heavily disputed whether punishment serves a function within society, and if so what this function is. Furthermore, the type of punishment given and the reasons for it is strongly contested. Early forms of punishment within British society included hanging, drawn & quartered, stoning, branding and whipping, to name a few. As society has progressed, and modern society developed after the 1700s, there has been a general trend towards the punishments becoming less violent in themselves and more about controlling people, and managing the risk that people pose to society (Durkheim, 1965).

There are two main justifications used for the implementation of punishment, particularly of harsh punishments, such as the death sentence in the USA (Pojman, 2004). Utilitarian views are 'forward looking' at crime, and believe that punishments deter people from committing further crimes and potential future offenders (Hudson, 2003; McLaughlin, Muncie & Hughes, 2003). This makes the assumption that that crime is a rational choice on behalf of the offender, and that it is weighed up by the gains versus the losses; thereby, punishment makes crime less favourable as a choice. The second justification is that punishment is a form of retribution. Pojman (2004) stipulates that all guilty people and only guilty people deserve to be punished, and that the severity should be balanced, proportionate to the crime committed. So if someone murders another person, they deserve to lose their life. Hudson (2003) highlights that retribution is also about the victims feeling that justice has been served and that society has taken heed of their suffering.

A number of postulations have been made about the future of punishment within modern society. Ferri (1968) believed that in the future the penal system will diminish and social justice will increase, in changing the social and physical environments and increasing preventative legislation rather than punitive measures to decrease crime. This works well with Braithwaite's idea on 'Reintegrative shaming' (Braithwaite, 1989). This idea is based on the idea of the power within communities and the ability of shame to be a powerful deterrence of crime and other anti-social behaviour. Rather than blame and outcast people, the balance can be addressed though a Restorative Justice approach, whereby co-operation between the offender and the victim, in coming to a solution that would be appropriate to help both people and restore the damage that has been caused by the offence (Hudson, 2003). This has been used with the Thames Valley Police (Hudson, 2003) with relative success in helping people to make significant changes in their lives to avert needing to enter the prison system. Economically this is more cost effective for society.

It is possible to imagine a society which accepts some responsibility for crime and that uses positive reinforcement and a 'positive' outlook on crime and offenders to enable them to reintegrate to become a viable part of society. A society of this type would benefit economically from the low costs associated with the punishment of crime. Unfortunately humans appeared to need retribution and a sense of fairness in equalling the pain suffered. A society ruled totally by fear of punishment and death is a heart-rending picture.

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