Crime and Punishment

C.S.Lewis has an excellent essay somewhere about the real basis of our penal system. It is retribution. He says that retribution is the only really just reason for the punishment of criminals, and the only reason that is fair and brings dignity to the human person.

First of all, retribution is not the same thing as revenge. Retribution is a just punishment which suits the crime. It has no other aim but to allot to the criminal the proper consequence for his action.

‘Civilized’ people confuse retribution with revenge and consider it to be a barbaric form of punishment, and in many primitive societies it is barbaric. The thief has his hand cut off. The rapist is castrated. The murderer executed, etc. However, the principle of retribution need not be barbaric. A civilized society with a fair judicial system and a network of prisons can mete out retribution in a fair and equable way.

The other motives for punishment, Lewis points out, seem humane, but lean intrinsically to injustice. So, for example, one might have rehabilitation as a motive for punishment. However, if rehabilitation is the motivation do we keep the criminal locked up until he is sufficiently reformed and rehabilitated? If so, a petty criminal might have to be locked away far longer than a murderer for a murder of passion might be repented of and the prisoner reformed quite quickly whereas a petty burglar may never be reformed. Shall he be locked away until he is a changed man? That would be unjust.

The same thing applies for the motivation of protecting the public from dangerous criminals. Shall we lock a criminal away simply for that motivation? If so, we may have to lock a person up for life even if he has committed no crime, but because he threatens to do so. Again, the wrong motivation for punishment leads to injustice.

Rehabilitation and protection of the public are beneficial side effects of punishment, but they cannot be the motivation for punishment.

Retribution is not only more objective and fair, but it also is based on the dignity of the human person. This because it takes human choice seriously and metes out a just and predetermined consequence for a person’s chosen action. This is not sentimental, nor is it bound by false motivations for punishment.

If retribution is the proper basis for the punishment of criminals, then some will argue that the death penalty is demanded. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” One who has taken a life should give his life. Perhaps. But then, there are many ways that a life may be taken. Life imprisonment is also a way that a life may be taken.

What the criminal does with his life in prison is another discussion altogether, but if the purpose is retribution, then a way for him to make reparation would be built into the occupation of his time behind bars. A severe punishment like solitary confinement or hard labor may be the retribution most appropriate rather than execution.

About Fr. Dwight Longenecker
  • Mike Cliffson

    Fr I haven't seen another thing in your posts and replies, I think, although implicit: what catholics can condemn the state for doing.As I recall , Our present Peter , when Cardinal Ratzinger, came in for a lot of MSM flack, twisting, spin, and outright wilful misrepresentation on a number of points – this was one-when the modern catechism was published.It was harder, without internet, to find out what he'd actually said, but not impossible, and well worth it.I remem ber, but not word perfect, that he said that although his personalFeeling?belief?understanding? was that there was no justification for the death penalty in modern states, given the plethera of resources,( I think he also mentioned leaving people time for repentence) voices in the church from other places and other times , was that even now in plenty of 3rd world/failed states/ riven by civil war. the recourse to the death penalty by such authorities as there were, better than nothing or the lesser of two evils, (precisely to favour the sanctity of human life,) could not, (unlike abortion) be universally condemned for such actions, however much any alternative be preferable.I had more than one argument with trendy friends over the matter. I particularly remember one argument, where I said that if I was the only authority, say luitenant, with but 20 armed men in a cutoff city after an earthquake with mob rule , raping, and looting, I would have recourse to instant justice and firing squads. He said , would I be one of the lotooters looking for food for the family, and I said indoubtedly.Then you'd be willing to execute yourself?Yes.What!llong expostulationsBecause this life isn't perfect, nor final, there's a judgement, and another life, and all that sort of thing comes out in the wash. He gave up on the fanatic, me.Another point for historians: find out why King Alfred was praised for the death penalty for murder and rape.

  • Paul Stilwell

    "Rehabilitation and protection of the public are beneficial side effects of punishment, but they cannot be the motivation for punishment."Yes, the fact that life imprisonment gives the criminal opportunity for repentance is just as easily answered with the fact that many a good confession has been made on Death Row.We cannot start to think that the punishment is going to bring about the rehabilitation – even if it does. True repentance must come from the free will, the heart.

  • hank_F_M

    FatherWords of wisdom form that most Catholic of sages.Frodo: "Now at any rate he [Gollum] is as bad as an Orc, and just an enemy. He deserves death."Gandalf the Wise: "Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends."You have an excellent point about retribution. Para 1807 of the Catechism defines Justice as a :.. .firm will to give their due to God and neighbor.” While we should never forget mercy, the first questions that should be asked is what is the “due” of the perpetrator, the victim, people in similar circumstances to the perpetrator who chose not to commit the crime, and society at large.I think “protection of the Public” might deserve a little more consideration. Para 2265 of the Catechism points out that “Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others.” Placing a person who has made a career or recreational choice to harm others in a place where he cannot exorcize that choice seems good way to fulfill that duty and could be considered what is “due” to potential future victims of the perpetrator.JPII said that the modern state has the ability to make the death penalty unessary. But along with that the modern state as the ability to be exert an excessive control that is counter to any consideration of human dignity, justice, and mercy. It is possible that at some places and times keeping the death penalty would be preferable to allowing a modern state to exercise that kind of authority. I am inclined to think, in principle, that the US could get rid of the death penalty without the problem of excessive state domination. But the death penalty is always part of a larger system and the system as a whole needs to be changed to ensure retribution and protection of the public. In pratice I am not sure we could get suffient agreement on how to do this.How to balance all this, I leave to greater minds than my own.

  • Arnobius of Sicca

    Father,I believe that essay you refer to is found in "God in the Dock."

  • Mark in Spokane

    A hypothetical for you:Murderer A is sentenced to life in prison without parole for raping and killing a 12 year old girl and the girl's mother. While in prison, serving his life sentence, Murderer A rapes and kills another three other inmates.In a world without a death penalty, how is Murderer A punished for raping and killing his three victims after he was incarcerated for life without the possibility of parole? How is he punished in such a way as to provide just retribution (not revenge but retribution) for his additional three rapes & murders?