Understanding the Law
November 23, 2007
Purpose of sentencing

Last week we looked at certain aspects of sentencing in the Court and coming out from these we saw the affinity to certain classical principles of sentencing. These have been recognized universally as the rationale for sentencing policies namely retribution, deterrence, prevention and rehabilitation.{{more}}


Retribution, generally speaking and in biblical terms suggests an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. This vindictive outlook is no longer subscribed to in our society. There is certain belief that when a person commits a crime against another person he also commits it against the whole of the society. In committing a crime the offender not only hurts the victim but offends all society. We have seen in our times the emotion that is evoked when a murder is committed. Hence the victim does not have to retaliate but must leave it to the society to impose a punishment that is fair and is not cruel and inhuman. The justice systems are constrained by human rights considerations not to impose cruel and inhuman punishment.

Because society retaliates by imposing punishment it is in this way that the action of society is seen as retributive. It is fairer for a neutral body to impose punishment than to allow the victim to retaliate. But judges have found it difficult to find the right punishment that suits the crime. Punishment is almost universal and is confined to fines, imprisonment and compensation. The retributive aspect in sentencing will always be present as it is only fair for a person who has committed a crime to suffer some consequences for his action.


Deterrence is perhaps one of the more important purposes of sentencing. Judges always want to warn persons out there not to commit crimes and perhaps it works for the majority of law abiding citizens. But there is the question as to whether sentencing works for those repeated offenders who appear not to be able to live comfortable out side the prison gates.

The offender is to be also taught a lesson that crime does not pay. The judges most often look to the prevalence of crimes in a community and this weighs heavily against the offender. The higher the incidence of crimes, the more the judges are apt to impose stiffer penalties within their discretion.


We would all like a crime free society so that we may go about our business unmolested, and sleep with our doors open, but this is not practical. For despite our many exhortations and condemnations, crimes continue to affect our societies adversely, as there is always some misguided person who feels that he can defy the odds. The policy is to shut away many of the repeat offenders so as to prevent crimes. When a notable burglar is incarcerated the community gets a respite.


Perhaps the most useful purpose of sentencing is that of rehabilitation but the focus on this is often limited. Traditionally prisons have been associated with rigorous, stringent and harsh conditions with the emphasis placed on punishment rather than reform. We may consider that since they have broken the law they do not deserve better treatment at the expense of taxpayers. But there is another side to this, the inmates’ freedom is already restricted, he cannot leave as he likes, he cannot conduct his own business and he must be dictated to. Is this sufficient punishment?

To reform an offender is to protect ourselves for when he leaves the prison walls. An emphasis on healthy work attitudes, counseling and acquisition of skills should be the objectives of a prison sentence. We have to look at a life after prison for the offenders. We cannot allow our vengeance to eat on our society with disastrous effect. Those persons who are committed to prison are repeat offenders for very few first offenders are sentenced. If we give offenders definite length of sentence, we expect them to be released and to mingle with the rest of society. Reform must be a significant feature of sentencing.

Ada Johnson is a solicitor and barrister-at-law.
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