The criminal justice system as we know it today has two widely recognized purposes: to secure justice via punishment and to rehabilitate offenders in order to eliminate their status as a threat to the rest of society. Unfortunately, the American criminal justice system has become known for widely neglecting the latter purpose with a much more significant focus on being punitive in its functionality. While administering an appropriate punishment for maliciously deviant behavior is certainly an important objective in any civilized society, an effective criminal justice system should be far more concerned with rehabilitation, considering that most convicted offenders will rejoin society at some point. Regardless, though, a truly functional criminal justice system must adhere to a reasonable balance of both punitive measures and rehabilitation efforts, as they both work to accomplish different objectives. Rehabilitation efforts ultimately have the most positive social and fiscal effects on society as well as on the individual offender, whereas punitive measures have the most positive effects on deterrence and on victims and their families.
The majority of criminal convictions in essentially all Western countries that include a sentence of incarceration will not be for a life term (or death in jurisdictions that continue to practice capital punishment). Therefore, criminal offenders that have not committed the most heinous crimes such as murder will ultimately rejoin society following the completion of their sentence. To neglect rehabilitation efforts as part of that sentence will only ensure that a criminal offender remains a danger to society upon their release from prison, leaving them with an increased likelihood of reoffending rather than becoming a responsible and valued member of society. In turn, the released offender also becomes a much greater fiscal expense due in part to their likelihood of relying on government social assistance programs. Furthermore, the financial cost of prosecuting reoffenders represents another significant burden on taxpayers that could be greatly mitigated as a result of rehabilitative efforts. However, it must also be recognized that there would be also be financial costs associated with community rehabilitation efforts, although those costs would differ greatly as they would much more so represent an “investment” into the offender, one which would potentially see a significant return in the offender’s future contributions to society. It is for this reason that spending on rehabilitation efforts is demonstrably more popular than spending on punitive efforts, even when rehabilitation efforts are more expensive (Nagin et al., 2006, p. 642). Still, while a criminal justice system with a heavy focus on rehabilitation would greatly assist with these issues in particular, those concerned strictly with punishing offenders would have a greatly contrasting impact. Punishment undoubtedly secures a notion of justice for victims and for a civil society, while neglecting the needs and the potential of the offender to turn his/her life around and truly join that civil society as a contributing member.

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A heavily punitive criminal justice system, much like that which exists in the United States today, is an effective tool at ensuring some degree of criminal deterrence and assisting victims of crime as well as their families with developing a sense of security and closure. While the exact degree of deterrence accomplished by a heavily punitive criminal justice system is difficult to measure, a number of academic studies have shown that the prospect of significant prison sentences and harsh prison conditions has at least somewhat of a demonstrable effect in lowering crime rates. However, due to the nature of these studies’ inability to directly link lower crime rates to an explicit deterrent effect of harsher sentencing, this deterrent effect is often argued against as the result of other factors or simply as immeasurable (Doob and Webster, 2003, p. 188). This also applies to the utilization of capital punishment, although there appears to be a somewhat larger consensus in favor of the view of its practice as playing a role in deterring serious crime, as Isaac Ehrlich recognizes findings that there is a “partial effect of the conditional probability of execution on the murder rate” (Ehrlich, 1975, p. 416). While the prevalence of a deterrent effect is admittedly controversial and inconclusive considering evidence both in favor and against its existence, there does lie certainty in that a punitive criminal justice system is beneficial to victims of crime. Providing justice, closure, and a sense of security is a fundamental good not only to the victim and their family but also to greater society. By providing society with the assurance that criminals will be adequately punished for their behavior, that sense of safety and security helps to ensure social calm and order. Furthermore, the victims themselves benefit from a punitive criminal justice system as they are afforded a greater ability to avoid the consequences of secondary victimization and because they are able to acquire financial compensation and the peace of mind knowing that the perpetrator has been removed from society (Orth, 2002, p. 323). While rehabilitation may certainly be more beneficial to the offender and to society, there is no question that the victim benefits most from seeing perpetrators adequately punished for their crimes.

A criminal justice system in the modern era holds the responsibility to adhere to both punitive and rehabilitative efforts, as both have potentially beneficial effects on criminal offenders, victims, and society. A balance must, however, be struck between them simply because a system cannot rely upon only one alone, or otherwise risk disaster in accomplishing its many goals. As a criminal justice system is one of the most important tools to a functional and civilized society, it is a fundamental societal goal to ensure that this tool is used for the maximization of societal benefit. While more should be done to increase rehabilitative efforts in the U.S. criminal justice system, this simply cannot be done without continuing to stress the importance of punishment for the benefit of victims and for sending the message that criminal behavior is unacceptable.

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