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When Rehabilitation is Ruled Out

The recent poll concerning capital punishment has me thinking about the nature of the U.S. penal system.

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I wonder if this guy would be considered rehabilitate-able…

The threat of punishment is an integral part of U.S. society. On the roads, speeding, drinking, and running red lights all could result in fines or other penalties. These punishments exist to make the streets safer, but there are only semi-effective at doing so. There is wasted effort when following laws doesn’t translate into safer streets (e.g., not running a red light when no one is around), and there is a false sense of security in only following what is enforced (a set that doesn’t typically include laws against following too close—at least not in a way that would improve street safety).

Obviously, there is more than government-threatened punishment involved. Some people actually drive safe to be safe. (Crazy, I know.) They realize that even though they won’t get a ticket for driving two seconds behind the car in front of them on the freeway, they’re significantly safer if they stay four seconds back.

What’s the difference? Education. Maturity. That sort of thing. Clearly, helping people achieve these would be useful in keeping the streets safe—so why do things like defensive driving only come into play on minor offenses? Just when the education seems most necessary, the system reverts to punishment only (e.g., larger fines, revoked license, jail time). Is it that the government deems rehabilitation not possible? Or not practical? And if so, how can we be surprised when the same decision is made concerning those who commit much more heinous crimes?

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Information This article was edited after publication by the author on 31 May 2009. View changes.
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Good questions by Occams

You raise some good questions there Brandon. I don’t know why either, but I suspect that our justice system wants to hurt the offender when serious crimes are involved.

Many of us will use the rhetoric of rehabilitation but when we are affected, or even only offended, we want vengeance.

I think many penalties reflect the cost to the community of keeping prisoners. So jail or prison is reserved for the more serious cases, particularly when local government has to pay.

why do things like defensive driving only come into play on minor offenses?

I think they do. There are plenty of programs in prisons that are intended to rehabilitate, not merely punish. Job training programs, GED programs, and so on.

There are also situations where judges have looked to “alternative” forms of sentencing as rehabilitation — an offender might be offered six months in prison or two years in the Army, for example. While the defendant may think it punishment, the intent is to give them (through Army training) a different lifestyle — that is, rehabilitation.

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