10 Oct 2022


The Case for Rehabilitation Over Retribution

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Academic level: Master’s

Paper type: Research Paper

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A penal system has three major components; how people get to jail, what happens to them once inside jail, and who they are when they leave jail. The subject of rehabilitative or punitive systems, while mainly focusing on the last two components is also immensely affected by the first components of how and why people are in jail. The proliferation of crime towards the 1970s changed all these creating a national uproar and a plea for government to be tougher on crime (Mears et al., 2015). This created the advent of a more punitive penal system and the abandonment or the benign rehabilitative approach. The transition however, did not solve the problem and indeed seemed to increase crime. This had the cause-and-effect sequence of a harsher system and more crime. Experts are now advising that a more rehabilitative approach might extenuate the situation (Travis et al., 2014). The government is, therefore, grappling with the problem of balancing the already failing punitive system with the introduction of a rehabilitative system without seemingly loosing face or seeming to have gone soft on crime. 

Problem Overview 

Americans are at war with the criminal justice and penal system and are taking a stand against it instead of supporting it. In spite of the continually increasing budget for law enforcement, judicial processes and penal systems, crime is not reducing. Instead, recidivism is up with statistics showing that a high percentage of those who have been incarcerated as juveniles will be convicted and incarcerated again in adulthood if not still as juveniles (Mears et al., 2015). There is also the problem of juveniles being sentenced to die in jail. Secondly, instead of prisons becoming centers of rehabilitation, they have become centers for learning crime. Many people who join penal facilities leave bitter with society and educated on how to commit worse crime and get away with it (Travis et al., 2014). 

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Indeed, those inmates who have no chance of leaving jail have nothing to lose and are encouraging short term inmates to delve deeper into crimes. It is only so far that the size of the penal system can grow and still be supportable by the economy. With crime only increasing, there is a point at which the size of the criminal and penal system will become impossible to support. This makes a transition from a punitive approach to a rehabilitative approach the only option to salvage the situation (Reiman & Leighton, 2012). From the perspective of population, the current problem mainly affects the poor as well as the minorities. The propensity for crime among the rich and the poor is similar but the ratio of poor in the penal system is exponentially higher than the rich. Further, the propensity for crime among the African American community is the same as among the white but the ratio of African Americans in the penal system is much higher than the whites (Travis et al, 2014). 

Among the consequences of the problem is placing a very high burden on the taxpayer. The burden includes paying for more law enforcement officers, the cost of the judicial system, and the cost of the penal facilities. The second problem is perpetuating crime through recidivism and generational crime (Mears et al., 2015). Generational crime happens when due to the incarceration of the father, sons inherit a higher propensity for crimes as juveniles and also as grownups. Finally, the system has created enmity between the convicts and the community which has jeopardized security issues such as the fight against organized crime and/or terrorism (Travis et al, 2014). 


The cause for the current impasse is poor and unfair laws and a poor penal system policy that treats convicts as enemies. Justice is meant to be blind, fair, and balanced. Poor laws have caused a weak criminal procedure system and manifest injustice. A person who commits banking fraud and bankrupts tens of thousands of Americans leading to hundreds of death can get a few years in a low security prison (Reiman & Leighton, 2012). Yet a person who is caught with a few hundred grams of crack cocaine will spend decades in a maximum security penitentiary. Poor criminal procedure regimens have made it easier for the poor to be convicted than the rich making the poor enemies of the law enforcement agencies. Anyone who can manipulate the law using circumspect defence attorneys can almost guarantee an acquittal with even the innocent who cannot afford good representation getting convicted (Reiman & Leighton, 2012). 

Finally, extreme sentencing has created a breed of Americans with nothing to lose both inside the penal systems and outside in the community. This is exacerbated by penal programs that treat criminals as enemies and animals more so in the maximum security prisons. A person who knows that they are bound to get a life sentence has a high propensity for being reckless and more violent in committing more crime and even against law enforcement. These makes poor sentencing rules a cause for increase in crime not an extenuation measure. The punitive system was premised on the theory that a system that was harsher to criminals would reduce crime. This theory has been proven wrong through practice as it has resulted in the contrary (Travis et al, 2014). 


The system that America put in place in the 1970s to curb crime has only made crime worse and create enmity between law enforcement and the populace. Crime was low when courts and prisons sough to rehabilitate criminals. The punitive system however, has transformed penal institutions into informal schools where hardcore crime is taught. Further, with every passing day, more courts have become necessary, more court officials, more prisons and more prison officers. The number of Americans in prison is increasing and will soon become untenable. It is time that a solution to the current impasse is found before the situation gets out of hand. The security of the nation requires the police and the populace to work together not against one another. 


Mears, D. P., Pickett, J. T., & Mancini, C. (2015). Support for balanced juvenile justice: Assessing views about youth, rehabilitation, and punishment.  Journal of quantitative criminology 31 (3), 459-479. 

Reiman, J. H., & Leighton, P. (2012).  The rich get richer and the poor get prison: Ideology, class, and criminal justice  (10th Ed.). Boston: Pearson. 

Travis, J., Western, B., Redburn, S., Consequences of High Rates of Incarceration, & Committee on Law and Justice (2014).  The growth of incarceration in the United States: Exploring causes and consequences . Washington, DC: National Academies Press. 

Literature Review 3 

Solution Description 

All the components of the instant problem have a common factor in the law so that albeit there are many solutions, the one that cuts across the entire problem scope is poor laws. The envisaged solution, therefore, lies in a change of the law. The first component of the problem being how people enter into the penal system is based on unfair laws that punish some criminals more harshly than others. The solution to this would be an overhaul of the laws so that the gravity of the crime fits the punishment. A criminal who feels they have been treated fairly at trial and sentenced commensurately with their crimes will not be bitter and have a higher chance for rehabilitation (O’Hear & Wheelock, 2016). 

The second component is treatment in the penal system which also relates to the law. An amendment to the law would avoid both irrevocable sentences as well as excessive sentences that make prisoners lose hope. This includes the death sentence and life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. This will give hope for a better future and encourage them to change (O’Hear & Wheelock, 2016). The law should also provide for courses on behavioral change, vocational training and actual education to show the prisoners that the world outside waits them and hopes for their change (Nally et al, 2014). Finally, the component about what happens when prisoners leave prison can be changed by laws that depict convicts as rehabilitated citizens not outlaws. Official discrimination against convicts should be eradicated and replaced with an encouragement of cordiality between convicts and the penal/law enforcement system. 

Theory of Change 

In its own unique way, the solution envisaged herein adheres to the leadership theory of change as it does not handle the actual problem from a practical perspective but entails a change of concept and philosophy that ensures an eventual practical change. The change, therefore, relates to the superintendence of the situation and not the situation itself. 

Analysis of the Empirical Literature on the Solution 

The solution suggested is based more on research on the cause of the problem and not the problem itself. It is holistic in nature and focuses on the citizen more that the penal system. This is premised on the fact that the transition from the punitive system to the rehabilitative system is not meant to create better jails but rather better citizens. How people perceive the punitive systems, why they perceive the system that way, the effects of that perception, and extenuation of those effects formed the basis for the research and informed the solution (Baker, 2015) . It will not only change the penal system but also the entire criminal law system. Implementation might however, be complex since most penal systems fall under state law and these vary from state to state. 


Changing the laws is a one stop solution for all the three components of the instant problem. The instant solution is based on the cause of the problem but not the practical application thereof, which will be more problematic. This calls for more research for example, to establish a way through which the federal government which bears much of the costs of the penal system can also take control of the systems before and after coming to jail. Further, there is still the problem of the cross section of the community that may be beyond salvage such as sexual offenders. From a pecuniary perspective, while the cost of solving the current problem may be hefty, it is not as large as sustaining the current bloated criminal procedure system and penal system. The high cost of solving the problem will be recovered once the penal system reduces in size and more prisoners join the work force. Further, the problem is now critical and must be resolved hence the need to find political goodwill and endeavor to solve it. 


Baker, T. (2015). Most Americans support rehabilitation compared to ‘tough on crime ‘policies.  USApp–American Politics and Policy Blog 

Nally, J. M., Lockwood, S., Ho, T., & Knutson, K. (2014). Post-release recidivism and employment among different types of released offenders: A 5-year follow-up study in the United States.  International Journal of Criminal Justice Sciences 9 (1), 16-34. 

O'Hear, M. M., & Wheelock, D. (2016). Public attitudes toward punishment, rehabilitation, and reform: Lessons from the Marquette law school poll. Federal Sentencing Reporter , 29(1), 47-51. doi: 10.1525/fsr.2016.29.1.47 

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