Morality of Punishment:
Shaping Criminal Justice Policy

Written By: Richard T Eckert on 9/27/06
When examining the issues surrounding criminal justice policies, there are those who feel that personal experiences and personal agendas should be given more consideration and weight than scientific empirical data.  These two different schools of thought or ideologies have been the basis of continuous heated controversy. 

Some of these controversial issues, range from the use or sometimes misuse of punishment on criminal offenders to the implementation of policies and programs that, through trial and error, are seen as the ultimate answer to our nation’s crime problem.  According to Townsend (2005), the moral foundation of punishment is a problematic issue which has prompted several competing views.  There are those who believe that when an individual commits an act, against societal norms, punishment must be delivered in the harshest form possible; no consideration given to rehabilitation.  On the other hand there are those who believe that punishment should be sanctioned, but with more emphasis placed on the rehabilitative aspect of it. 

            The basic idea behind punishment is not to inflict suffering on offenders but to reassert the existence of the moral order that governs human life.  Townsend (2005) takes his view further by stating that moral order emphasizes the connections between justice, right relationships and seeking after community well-being.  For this reason, punishment should be aimed at making reparation not only to victims but to restore offenders back into the community.  The use and severity of punishment, for criminal offenses, must be unanimously decided upon not only by those who make public policy but by society in general.  When deciding how much and how far society will go in punishing offenders, society must also consider the consequences that go along with delivering these punishments.  Policy makers, at different levels, must make choices and analyze options, and in determining the approach to follow should take into account any ethical aspects involved in their plans and proposals (Banks, 2004, p. 171). 

 When examining criminal justice policies, careful consideration must be given to the events which lead to their formulation.  These events not only affect the victims and their families directly but play a major part in dictating future public policies.  What is observed is the indirect victimization of society from these criminal occurrences.  Some of these horrific events included the abduction and murders of Polly Klaas, Megan Kanka and Amber Hagerman.  Due to these events, society has become outraged that these crimes could even occur.  In turn, this outrage has caused many policy makers, without the thought of the possible repercussions, to come up with new laws and policies to help minimize future events.  With the possibility of these crimes reoccurring, policy makers find themselves determined to initiate programs and pass new laws which will hopefully calm societal fears.  Of course, criminal justice strategies are not formulated in a vacuum.  They take into account ideologies and politics current at the time, and in many cases, are presumed to be given effect to social movements and public concerns (Banks, 2004, p. 172). 

What has been referred to as “moral panic” is the emergence of a condition, event, or group of persons that becomes defined as a threat to the values and interests of society (Cohen, 1972).  This “moral panic”, through the assistance of the media, plays on the fears of the public.  These fears cause nothing more but the passing of policies and programs, which in the long run will either show no positive affects or cause more of a negative impact; some showing little consideration for either moral or ethical dilemmas.  As pointed out, policy making based on what citizens want is unfortunately constrained by the ignorance of the public on many aspects of crime and crime control (Cullen, F., Fisher, B., & Applegate, B., 2000).   Without taking into consideration either empirical data or results from previous studies, society usually jumps the gun and sees to it that these policies are implemented.  According to Banks (2004), others have argued that “unethical” policy making includes reacting to events and issues that create “moral panics” by making ad hoc, capricious, and arbitrary policies that are not reasoned and not rational (p. 172). 

In recent years, society has taken a tougher stance on law enforcement with more emphasis on a “get tough on crime” policy or initiative.  DiIulio argues that citizens have become fed up with crime rates and with offenders victimizing them, and have concluded rationally that more offenders should be locked up for longer periods of time (as cited in Cullen et al., 2000).  This generalized thinking fails to take into consideration the more specific and individualistic problems associated with longer sentences.  According to Piehl (2004), incarceration can have negative effects on a community due to the disruption of social and economic relationships.  When the cost of the disruption is large, relative to the gain, the expanded use of incarceration is imposing a net cost on the affected communities (pp. 303-304). 

Careful consideration should also be given to those policies, which are based solely on morality principles.  These policies are purely based on self-initiatives and personal experiences.  Unlike other policy issues, morality policies are considered easy to understand and require no special expertise for opinions and views to be expressed (Glick, H. & Hutchinson, A., 2001).  Morality policies are seen more to promote the self-interest either of an individual or a specialized group.  These individuals, according to Banks (2004), rely more on their intuition to guide their thinking.  However, there is danger in following only our intuition.  Baron (1998) points out that most people take stands on public issues on the basis of intuition in terms of what is believed to be “right”.  This approach usually results in only partial understanding of the issue. 

There are many implications of writing policies and procedures based on intuition, morality policies, fear, and anger.   What seems to be an ideal way of handling these issues could ultimately cause more harm than good.  As stated previously, this harm is not only felt by the individual offender but on society as a whole.  Some of these policies, which have been implemented, include: capital punishment, maximum-security confinement, “three-strikes” laws and the increased surveillance of sex offenders.  Banks (2004), suggested that in the case of morality policy making, such as that regarding punishment, moral panics and ideological stances prevail over rational, reasoned, and ethical decision making (p. 178).  The repercussions of these irrational policies seem to range from economic disadvantages to the misrepresentation of sex offenders; referring to their high level of recidivism compared to that of other criminal offenses. (Sample, L., & Bray, T., 2003)  The labeling of a criminal class is another repercussion of irrational polices.  These labels parallel the depiction of an underclass; that is, a marginal, unemployable population lacking education and skill (Banks, 2004, p. 180). 

It appears as though society’s agenda is one where quick response and fast action are the ideal ways in which to handle our nation’s criminal problems.  As for our political leaders, some would argue that policy makers are prevented from making ethical decisions by a kind of machismo, which sees any concern or ethical issues as a sign of political weakness (Banks, 2004, p. 172).  Society cannot afford to allow policy making to be implemented on the basis of machismo attitudes.  Through careful planning and scientific research, we can come to a far better understanding of our criminal offenders.  Societies, which do nothing but incarcerate and punish its offenders, are doing a disservice not only to the offender, but ultimately creates a revolving door justice system.  Offenders need rehabilitation to impact the culture of society in a positive manner and be re-introduced into the community.  It is important to remember that through incarceration the problem is simply being masked.   With research and careful planning we can hopefully eliminate, if not, drastically diminish our nation’s criminal problem.   

It is critical that public policy not be dictated through vindication and revenge.  Respect to ethics and morality are vital to the rehabilitation of offenders.  When culture creates policy reflective of ethics and morality, offenders will stand a better chance of being integrated into society.  These positive integrations into the community are crucial in the efforts to keep offenders from re-offending.    

Banks, C. (2004). Criminal Justice Ethics: Theory and Practice. California: Sage Publications.

Baron, J. (1998). Judgment Misguided: Intuition and Error in Public Decision Making. New York: Oxford University Press.

Cohen, S. (1972). Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers.
                        London: MacGibbon & Kee.

Cullen, F., Fisher, B., & Applegate, B. (2000). Public Opinion About Punishment and Corrections. Pp. 1-79, in Crime and Justice: A Review of Research (M. Tonry, Ed.). Chicago: Chicago University Press.

DiIulio, J. (1990). The Duty to Govern: A Critical Perspective on the Private Management of Prisons and Jails. Pp. 155-178, in Private Prisons and the Public Interests (D.C. McDonald, Ed.). New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Glick, H. & Hutchinson, A. (2001). Physician Assisted Suicide: Agenda Setting and the Elements of Morality Policy. Pp. 55-70, in The Public Clash of Private Values: The Politics of Morality Policy (C. Mooney, Ed.). New York: Chatham House.

Piehl, A. (2004). The Challenges of Mass Incarceration. Criminology and Public Policy, 3(2), pp. 303-308.

Sample, L. & Bray, T. (2003). Are Sex Offenders Dangerous? Criminology and Public Policy, 3(1), pp. 59-82.

Townsend, C. (2005). The Morality of Punishment. Retrieved on October 1, 2006, from
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