What is The Purpose of Criminal Sentencing?


Being charged with a crime, any crime, is a serious event. As attorneys, we usually use this space to talk about things like the elements of crimes and whether or not the prosecution has enough evidence to convict someone. But right now I’d like to talk about something different — what, exactly, is the purpose behind sentencing someone found guilty of a crime?

Crime and Punishment:

One of the biggest questions governments have faced since we started having laws is what to do with people who break them? Do we punish them? Do we try and teach them why they shouldn’t have broken the law? Do we exile them to an island? Do we kill them? Do we use their punishment as a lesson for other would-be lawbreakers? Do we try and rehabilitate lawbreakers so that they don’t break laws in the future?

Difficult questions. There aren’t really any easy answers, except that we’ve pretty much agreed as a society that we shouldn’t execute people for petty crimes. But for everything else, ask 10 people what the government should do with someone convicted of shoplifting and you’ll get 10 different answers. Recently a man in Alabama received a life sentence for shoplifting a nail gun. Is that what we, as a society, want from our criminal justice system?

Florida – Punishment First, Rehabilitation Second:

Florida’s philosophy in criminal sentencing is this:

The primary purpose of sentencing is to punish the offender. Rehabilitation is a desired goal of the criminal justice system but is subordinate to the goal of punishment. F.S. 921.002(1)(b).

So Florida’s primary purpose in sentencing someone after they are convicted of a crime is to punish them. Rehabilitation takes a back seat to punishment. But is that how it should be?

Think about they way we name prisons now — we call them “correctional institutions.” The part of state government in charge of housing those sentenced to prison is called the “Department of Corrections.” We have moved from only punishing people to “correcting” them. One of the missions of the Department of Corrections is “offering [prisoners] opportunities for successful re-entry into society.”

A Growing Problem:

One thing is beyond question: the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Higher than countries we think of as oppressive, less free, or that give people fewer rights. Higher than military dictatorships or communist regimes. We have more jails than we have colleges. Based on this map, Florida has more people serving time in prison than we do college students living on college campuses.

That’s a problem. A big problem. When people talk about this problem they talk about things like the “war on drugs” or mandatory minimums that require certain sentences for certain crimes or repeat offenders. The guy sentenced to life for shoplifting a nailgun I mentioned above was given that sentece due to Alabama’s mandatory minimum laws. While we may talk about wanting to “rehabilitate” prisoners into becoming members of society, we sure don’t act like it.

Solutions On the Horizon:

There are solutions to this problem. The Justice Department has made sentence reductions for some drug offenses retroactive, meaning that people currently serving time can apply to have their sentences reduced. Groups such as Families Against Mandatory Minimums are working to change the sentencing laws so that our country’s prison population doesn’t stay the highest in the world. Even conservative lawmakers are starting to come around to the idea that our huge prison population is costing us unnecessary billions each year. Hopefully this means change is on the horizon.