Why are criminals punished for their crimes? What does the criminal law hope to accomplish with the punishments imposed on criminal offenders? There are countless answers to questions like this, perhaps as many different answers as there are citizens in this country, multiplied by the number of criminals.

Feelings run deep in the wake of crime, even relatively minor crime, and it's not uncommon for everyone to want something a little different from the punishment imposed on any given criminal. Even in the most straight-forward cases, debate over the why of punishment can run on forever. In this article, we will consider a hypothetical case to illustrate how conflicting purposes can shape a criminal's sentence and determine the criminal's fate.

Case Introduction

Our hypothetical defendant is found guilty of date rape. Rape can be a very serious crime in many jurisdictions, carrying sentences as heavy as life imprisonment. However, the defendant has no prior convictions on his record, and it became clear in his trial that this act was extremely out of character. He is a college student in good standing, a member of several clubs, and so on. A psychiatrist testified under oath that the defendant is unlikely to repeat his crime, and that a prison term has the potential to be very detrimental to him. The court acknowledges this. Nevertheless, the defendant is guilty of rape and he must be punished in some way for his crime.

We will illustrate three possible sentences.

First Sentence

First, the court could impose a heavy sentence on the defendant - say, fifteen years in prison. This would certainly accomplish the aim of restraint from further crimes, which would perhaps put the people of his community at some ease in knowing that this particular young man will not have opportunity to repeat his crime for some time. This sentence also has very high general deterrence value (it will probably make others think twice before ignoring a "No"), and high retribution value.

Considering the psychiatrist's testimony, the defendant is going to suffer much, and for a very long time, for the suffering he inflicted on his victim. However, the psychiatrist's testimony also indicates that the chances of rehabilitation will be severely diminished and, on the same note, that individual deterrence will fail. The defendant will have twelve years to get to know himself as a criminal, and what will he do when he is released?

But the court would probably not impose such a heavy punishment in this case. In general, the majority opinion is that it's unjust punish someone with no prior criminal history so severely. The victim and her family may think otherwise, but this must be balanced against what the defendant's friends and family think.

Second Sentence

Second, the court could impose light punishment, perhaps three years of probation with a $10,000 fine, along with a requirement to pay for the victim's psychological treatment. This sentence would be highly supportive of rehabilitation. And, considering the defendant's history and character, the burdens of a fine, probation and active psychotherapy treatment (not to mention the burden of social stigma that would follow him everywhere) would probably be enough to deter him from ever committing his crime again.

Restraint, however, is completely ignored. This could be an acceptable risk in the court's opinion, if failing to restrain the defendant significantly diminishes his chances of repeating the crime.

On the other hand, little is accomplished in the way of general deterrence (in fact, such a light sentence could even encourage other offenses). And it may be argued that there is no meaningful retribution in this sentence at all. For these reasons, the court would probably avoid such a light sentence.

Third Sentence

The third, and probably the most likely, outcome would be a middle-of-the-road punishment, perhaps three years in prison and a fine. This is perhaps the best balance of purpose in a sentence, as well as the weakest punishment possible. It partially satisfies everyone, and fully satisfies no one. Proponents of retribution will not think that three years of prison is enough, and it is probably still too light a sentence to impose much general deterrence on those inclined towards this sort of crime.

Restraint is only provided for a few years, after which, given the psychiatric report accepted by the court, a man who'll probably be substantially worsened by his time in prison will be released into society. Given the low likelihood of rehabilitation, individual deterrence has a much higher likelihood of failure.

This is not to say that the third and most likely sentence is wrong. It's fair to say a desire to compromise and balance the many purposes and intentions behind punishment in the criminal law is very much in the spirit of a democratic society governed by the rule of law. This hypothetical situation simply illustrates how complex the decisions regarding punishment can be. In so many cases - perhaps in every case - there simply is no perfect solution.