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Objectives of Sentencing

The 6 Philosophical Reasons Behind the Objectives of Sentencing

If you are to take a stand on issues like capital punishment, then it's important for you to understand what the objectives of sentencing are.
Abhijit Naik
Last Updated: Jun 3, 2018
In judiciary, sentencing is the act of pronouncing a sentence, which can be a fine, punishment, or a decree of imprisonment, on someone convicted for a crime. In the United States, one of the main purposes of criminal sentencing is to "protect the public from further crimes of the defendant."
But obviously, the act of sentencing depends on the philosophical principle that is followed by the court and the purpose or objective of sentencing. When determining the objective, the judicial system has to take into consideration several things, right from the history of the person involved to the severity of the crime and loss incurred.
Sentencing Objectives in Judiciary
As stipulated by the judicial systems across the world, there exist six objectives of sentencing: (i) retribution, (ii) deterrence, (iii) incapacitation, (iv) denunciation, (v) rehabilitation, and (vi) restitution. Given below are the details of each of these, which will help you get a better understanding of the philosophical principle behind them.
'Let the punishment fit the crime'―this is the principle behind retribution, wherein it is believed that punishment is morally acceptable response for crime, when given in proportion to the severity of the crime committed. In order to make sure that the punishment is proportional, it has to be scaled with the severity of the offending behavior of the person who is being sentenced. However, it is very difficult to come to a consensus on whether the punishment is actually proportionate to the crime.
While the classical school of thought was of the opinion that the amount of punishment should be proportionate to the amount of harm caused as a result of the criminal act, more recent advocates of retribution argue that the amount of punishment should be proportionate to the amount of unfair advantage gained by the convict―not the amount of harm caused.
This objective basically uses punishment as a threat for people who resort to unlawful activities. Deterrence is further categorized into specific deterrence, wherein the convict is targeted, and general deterrence, wherein the case of the convict sets an example for the society. There exists yet another type, incapacitation, wherein the convict is deterred from committing crime by taking away his ability to commit it, instead of giving him a chance to rehabilitate.
There seems to be a lot of confusion about incapacitation with some people considering it the third category of deterrence, some considering it a subset of specific deterrence, and some arguing that it is an altogether separate objective, which is indirectly associated with deterrence. It has been subjected to severe criticism in recent times, with critics arguing that it is ineffective and suggesting that the criminal would seldom pause and give his action a thought in the heat of the moment.
Undoubtedly the most controversial objective, incapacitation revolves around the fact that the said criminal act has to be prevented and the only way to do is it to incapacitate the convict by removing him from the society. People who support this practice are of the opinion that if the said person is set free, it will be a threat for the society, which makes it important for the judicial system to take away his ability to commit the said crime by incapacitating him.
It can be either done by sentencing the person to life or sending him to the gallows. Though deterrence is not the objective, incapacitation does act as a deterrent for the society (which explains all the confusion between the two.) Incapacitation also involves some of the most controversial forms of punishment, including cutting off the hands of a person convicted for theft and death penalty for murder or genocide.
In the field of law, denunciation refers to the disapproval of an act by the society which is expressed by imposition of a sentence. It serves as a message for the convict as well as other individuals that such acts will not be tolerated in the society. The arguments of denunciation more often reflect the values of a society, instead of reflecting the principles of a criminal justice system.
One of the most promoted sentencing objectives, rehabilitation revolves around the fact that a person is not always a criminal, and if shown the right path, he can contribute to the cause of the society. A convict can be rehabilitated either by educating him or by subjecting him to therapy. Its aim is to reform the individual, so that it becomes easier for him to assimilate in the society and easier for the society to accept him.
While most of the sources suggest that there are only five objectives, there do exist some which add yet another objective to the list, thus making it six. The sixth objective, which is most often used on forgery cases, is restitution, wherein the convict is ordered to reimburse the financial loss suffered by the victim.
Simply put, the motive behind sentencing is either to punish the convict for the crime he has committed, or to send across the message that such criminal behavior will not be tolerated in the society. Furthermore, if the person has been convicted for more than one crime, the judge can either resort to consecutive sentencing (wherein the total imprisonment period is the sum of all crimes) or concurrent sentencing (wherein the period of imprisonment equals the longest sentence) depending on the prevailing circumstances.