The Purpose of Punishment

The Purpose of Punishment

            Punishment has been defined differently by various people. In criminal law, it is defined as any penalty inflicted upon an individual for committing a given criminal offense or for acting against law. The act of punishing can be done formally or informally. Various experts have discussed the purpose of punishment using a number of theories. This paper will compare purpose of punishment based on classical and Durkheim theory (Durkheim, 1938, 15). Durkheim is one of the prominent experts in analyzing crime and punishment. According to Durkheim, the main objective of punishment was to maintain the authority of the laws that have been violated.

            Durkheim states that punishment is meant to restore and maintain collective conscience. He believed that crimes destroy solidarity in a society and a right to punishment can restore faith in one another by punishing the offender. He goes on to argue that in this complex modern world, people have gone to the extent of revenging back and this is what has weakened the power of punishment, hence increasing the rate of crimes and offences in the society (Merton, 1938, 3). Durkheim contends that people are molded by their own social experiences and if that collective principle is weakened, then the moral ties that bring people together will also be weakened. The weakening of these moral ties is what he termed as anomie.

            According to Durkheim, anomie happened after traditional norms were undermined and these norms were not replaced by other new norms. As a result, due to lack of moral guidelines, people experienced a state of anxiety, disorientation, aimlessness and so forth (Merton, 1938, 5). Therefore anomie is regarded as a very dangerous phenomenon because it puts in a state of being less concerned about others, and in this case, they refocus on their self interests. In effect, they end up looking after themselves not bothering about the impact of their actions on other people (Lombroso & Ferrero, 2002, 42).

            According to Durkheim, there is a difference between the traditional and modern law concerning punishment. Traditionally, punishment was corporal and intended on the body of the offender, whereas, in the current societies, things have become institutionalized leading to lenient kind of punishment (Durkheim, 1938, 66). Modern society is now progressive and individualistic forming a self centered culture where people are only concerned about their personal welfare than the welfare of the entire society. This has in turn contributed to the breakdown of collective conscience hence causing social decay coupled with lenient punishment as opposed to the traditional way of consciences.

            Durkheim has always desired to have conformity as a way to of bringing people together. Conformity can help people to live societal way of life but not individualistic as it is. This can help to build cohesiveness and collective conscience (Durkheim, 1938, 67). According to him, moral decay comes in when people are divided into groups and each group has its own view different from each other. He suggests that lack of conformity is the cause of increased conflict which has also increased crime rates. The solution to end this is by embracing conformity, such that there is nothing dividing people in the society.

On the other hand, classicalists have also argued their own views on criminal punishment based on their classical theories. Classical theory does not regard crime as a sin. Classical approach is an approach that analyzes societal factors to determine the factors that lead to the occurrence of a crime. This approach weighs the benefit of a crime alongside the cost of its punishment (Beccaria, 1963, 17). This approach goes further to determine the factors that lead to the occurrence of a crime such that, such that way to reduce criminal behavior is by eliminating the causing factors. This implies that classical approach limits punishment.  

            Beccaria was one of the theorists who transformed criminal justice system in the 18th century and this transformation was felt all over the world. According to him, the purpose of punishment is deterrence. Punishment should be imposed on an individual with the intention that, that individual does not commit the same crime again. So as to prevent crime, punishment needs to be swift, certain and severe and its severity should outweigh the benefits obtained from crime commission (Beccaria, 1963, 19). In his theory, he condemned human torture and his major focus was human justice rather why crimes are committed. In his work, he stated that human beings have a choice of actions. This implies, for any action taken by an individual, it is always his or her own choice, hence no need to be penalized for it. In his view, he said that punishment should be used as a threat to commit a crime. To control human behavior, punishment can be used to create fear since people fear pain; they will always control their behaviors.

            Beccaria believed on the need to put laws in place so as to have punishments consistent with the crime. He gave three categories of preventing crime basing on three ideas (Beccaria, 1963, 17). The first idea is being certain about the occurrence of the crime, the speed at which the crime occurred compared to how quick the punishment can be administered, and the brutality of the crime and how much pain can be administered to that crime. He thought that the severity of the penalty must be equal to crime and it should not exceed the necessary so as to discourage the criminal and other people from falling into crimes.

            According to this theory, criminals choose to do crimes due to maximum pleasure and minimum pain. Classical theorists say that since criminals are rational, there is a need create deterrents that slightly outweigh the benefit of a given crime (Beccaria, 1963, 17). And they viewed death penalty as being pointless because it has no deterrent. Classical approach has contributed towards the nature of criminal justice practice. In America and Europe, the common system of criminal justice is, punishment being proportionate to crime. Ever since classical theory was instituted, the use of capital punishments, corporal punishment and torture has reduced.


            Durkheim’s approach to criminology is slightly different from classical approach. Despite the fact that both theories agree with the use of punishment to deter people from committing crimes, the degree of punishment varies. Durkheim believed in the traditional way of administering punishment where corporal punishment was the order of the day. According to him, this was necessary in order to hurt the body of the offender for violating a given law and punishment in this case was to maintain the authority laws. Compromising with punishment in this case would lead to increase of crimes. On the other hand classical theorists argued that punishment deters people from committing crime but it should be inflicted in a way that punishment slightly outweighs crime. Classical approach also condemned the use of corporal punishments, capital punishment and torture as opposing to Durkheim theory.


Beccaria, C. (1963) “On Crimes and Punishment”, in E. McLaughlin, J. Muncie and G. Hughes (eds) Criminological Perspectives: Essential Readings, London: Sage.

Lombroso, C. and Ferrero, W. (2002) “The criminal type in women and its atavistic origin”, in E. McLaughlin, J. Muncie and G. Hughes (eds) Criminological Perspectives: Essential Readings, London: Sage.

Durkheim, E. (1938) “The Normal and the Pathological”, in E. McLaughlin, J. Muncie and G. Hughes (eds) Criminological Perspectives: Essential Readings, London: Sage.

Merton, R. K. (1938) “Social Structure and Anomie”, American Sociological Review, 3, 5, 672-682.




1249 Words  4 Pages

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