Theories of Punishment: 3 Main Punishment Theories in Law Explained

Theories of Punishment: Generally, a Society without Law and order will experience a state of Anarchy and will be a Menace. This is why Laws are implemented in every society to regulate the conduct and guide the affairs of members of the Society.

What are the main theories of punishment?
What are the main theories of punishment?

The Laws in a Society can be majorly classified into: Civil and Criminal Law. Civil Law guides the personal affairs of members of the Society, while Criminal Law is the body of Law which prescribes Criminal offenses, disorder and actions in the Society, and metes out punishment to offenders. Hence, it is in this Criminal Law that the theory of punishment comes in. This Article therefore seeks to consider the meaning of Punishment and the theories of Punishment.

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What Is Punishment?

It is instructive to note that there is no universally accepted definition of Punishment. However, Punishment can be defined as the imposition of some penalty or sanction to a person for committing an offence or breaching the provisions of a Criminal Law.

Punishment can be described as a Situation wherein an agent of a State is authorized to intentionally inflict pain or suffering on a person who is convicted of a Crime or Causes to suffer some consequence that ordinarily is considered unpleasant. Thus, where for example a Person steals some goods, and the police arrests such a person, institute an action in Court against such person, and the Court pronounces a sentence of Imprisonment against such person, that is a Punishment for the offence he committed, which in this case is the offence of Stealing.

I trust you now understand the meaning of Punishment? Let’s now consider the theories of Punishment.

theories of punishment explained
theories of punishment explained

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Main Theories of Punishment In Law Explained

Theories of Punishment generally refers to various views of Philosophers as to the purpose of Punishment, why Punishment, and the rationale behind Punishment. There are three major theories of Punishment: Utilitarianism, Retributivism, and Denunciation.

1. Utilitarian Theory of Punishment: Utilitarian theory of punishment or Utilitarianism was propounded by Jeremy Bentham, and in particular, classical utilitarianism. The objective of this system is to ensure general happiness among the populace, thus the belief that the law should concern itself primarily with ensuring that painful and unpleasant happenings are brought to the barest minimum. The desire is for an utopian society where neither crime nor punishment would exist, as both are regarded as unpleasant.

Utilitarian theory of punishment
Utilitarian theory of punishment

However, since utopia is literally unachievable in our world, utilitarians only exact punishment and any form of pain when it is absolutely necessary, and when it would yield the desired result. This result is usually geared towards the end goal of creating a happier, pain-free society.

The average utilitarian believes that man acts both rationally and spontaneously. The spontaneity arises from the fact that a human would often carry out a conduct which he believes would propel him to another stage of happiness or offer him some more succor.

On rationality, a human would often second-guess carrying out his intent (a criminal one in this case); he would weigh the consequences of that act in relation to the estimated rewards to ascertain what cause of action or non-action would be most beneficial in the circumstances. He would weigh the expected pleasures against the expected pain – the possibility of getting caught, convicted and sentenced.

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This theory also proposes that after looking at both sides of the coin, the rational human would opt for the side which he would cause him no or less pain. If the baggage that comes with carrying out the criminal intent outweighs the good, then he’d likely abandon his unlawful quest.

The questions to ask become, is this assumption practical? Would every potential offender take all these into consideration? What is the likelihood that the thought would occur to every one of them or at least, a substantial number?

The uncertainty that this assumption poses is that it perceives every potential offender to be rational and able to make all these calculations and deductions, along with having within his reach all information and resources needed to do so.

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Theories and Kinds of Punishment
Theories and Kinds of Punishment


Forms of utilitarianism

The application of the theory of utilitarianism in the criminal justice system takes various forms. One form that is particularly stressed is the goal of general deterrence.

When an offender is caught and punishment is meted out to him, it is done in hopes that it would deter the general society from engaging in such crimes like the offender had done, so as to avoid being penalised too. The offender’s punishment serves as an example to convince all the people of the undesirable consequences of repeating such actions.

On closer look, this form of utilitarianism points towards achieving the main aim of the theory itself. When the  community is sufficiently deterred by making an example of criminals, it is thought to reduce the number of would-be offenders and make then forego any criminal intent they may have, for fear of being punished too.

A second variety of utilitarianism – related to the first – would be individual deterrence. This one usually occurs concurrently with general deterrence. As the general public is served an example of what would happen if of they were to violate the law, the individual who us being punished is also deterred from repeating such acts. It gives the individual offender a clear-cut experience of the consequence of further misconduct.

form and criticisms of the theories of punishment in criminal law
form and criticisms of the theories of punishment in criminal law

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A third variety which we would examine is incapacitation. Offenders are often incarcerated or imprisoned for their crimes. In the utilitarian sense, this serves the purpose of physically barring the individual in question from committing crimes anymore than if he were left to roam the streets free, possibly instilling fear in the populace and defeating the purpose of general happiness in the society.

Another variety is rehabilitation. This one is slightly different from the aforementioned. The first three are classical forms of utilitarianism and are concerned with reducing crime by effecting compliance through fear and intimidation.

This particular variety takes a different approach and seeks to reduce crime by reforming the offender. This is often  achieved by placing the individual in a correctional facility, therapy or under mental care as the case may be.

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2. Retributive theory of punishment: A major difference between utilitarians and retributivists is that the former are concerned with the futuristic outcome; what actions would lead to what results tomorrow. The latter on the other hand, are hinged to the past and focus on administering punishment because of that offences previously committed.

A reteibutivist believes that every individual possess free will and therefore should be held responsible for the choices they make. They believes that when a person violates the law, it is a voluntary act and is borne out of his free will and conscious intent to do so.

Retributivism is an uncompromising theory as it is bent on punishing the last criminal even if all else falls apart. There is no particular concern about whether the penalty issued would reduce crime. Exacting vengeance on the offender is the basic aim here.

What is retribution theory of punishment?
What is retribution theory of punishment?

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One may ask what the justification for this seemingly harsh position is, and of course, retributivists have a ready answer. One version, called assaultive retribution or public vengeance believes that it is morally right to hurt the criminal back and hate him for the wrong he has done. On this basis, the society must exact vengeance on him.

Another aspect that springs up from this version is individual vengeance. Under this, it is justifiable for a victim to hate the criminal who has inflicted pain on him and natural for him to want to avenge his cause. This hatred in itself is supposed to represent the victim’s self-respect, being that he would never let anyone trample on him or desecrate his perosnla dignity and get away with it. On the other hand, we have protective retribution. Unlike assaultive retribution, this version is not concerned with exacting societal vengeance. The reasoning here is that there exists a moral balance in every society; each individual bearing equal rights and responsibilities. The scales are tipped when an individual decides to violate the law, and nothing will be the same if balance isn’t restored.

Punishing the offender, it is believed, is the only way to do this. Here, the criminal’s pain is the ultimate saxriface for societal order to be restored.

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3. Denunciation (Expressive) Theory: This Theory is a combination of Utilitarianism and Retributivism. Under this Theory, Punishment is Justified as a means of expressing Society’s condemnation and the relative seriousness of a crime.

What is punishment and its theories?
What is punishment and its theories?

The ability of the Court to manage both Utilitarian and Retributive theory of punishment is being expressed in this Theory in order to attain Justice. This Expressive theory is designed for the following:

a. To inform individuals of conducts which are improper in the society

b. To inform individuals that the Victims worth is invaluable

c. To maintain Social Cohesion

d To prevent futuristic commission of a crime

e. To stigmatize the offender for his offence

f. To vindicated m the victim

g. To mete a deserved punishment to a wrong doer.

If you wish to know more about the theories of punishment, I highly recommend that you watch the video below. It explains more about the theories discussed above. 

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In conclusion, it is pertinent to know that both the Utilitarian, Retributive, Denunciation theories of punishment has advantages and disadvantages. Some criminal justice system employs the three theories of punishment in criminal matter. This system is otherwise known as the mixed theory of punishment. It is more widely practiced in the world today.