What’s the justification for punishing a criminal?

The four classic justifications are incapacitation, deterrence, rehabilitation, and retribution.  First, the idea behind incapacitation is to take a dangerous criminal off the street.  If the criminal is in jail, that criminal won’t be a danger to society. Deterrence is also forward-looking: by creating steep punishments for crimes, the law makes people more afraid to commit them.  The third justification, rehabilitation, is the noblest: the criminal justice system hopes to clean-up criminals and show them a more productive way to live in society.  (In practice, U.S. prisons are bad at reforming criminals).  Finally, retribution is the least noble justification: the logic is, of course, the age-old eye-for-an-eye.

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Many people think that one (or all) of these four concepts justify the criminal justice system.  But what happens after prison?

Most ex-convicts continue to struggle.  Specifically, they struggle to get jobs because they have to report their criminal history on applications.  They have to check the box that says, “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?”

But what’s the purpose of the box?  If the person is back in society, they’re no longer incapacitated, job or no job.  Maybe the state can deter more criminals by making it harder for them to find jobs after prison.  But prison in itself is a pretty large deterrent.  If the goal of prison is to rehabilitate, then we have to trust it to work; and if it works, then people who are rehabilitated deserve jobs.  And finally, as a society, the last thing we need is to be more retributive than we already are.  Ultimately, all we achieve by making criminals check boxes is to make it harder for them to reintegrate into society in a productive way; and that hurts everyone.

Sign this petition to protect inmates and their futures.

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