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Key issues


Key Terms

There are five main underlying theoretical justifications of criminal punishment:

Retribution - this theory of punishment derives from the Old Testament lex talionis "an eye for an eye". It justifies punishment on the basis that all individuals convicted of a crime deserve to be punished, and proposes that the most appropriate response is a punishment that is proportional to the wrong committed (see for example: Baier, 1977).

Incapacitation - this theory assumes that the state has a duty to protect the public from future wrongs or harms, and that such protection can be afforded through some form of incarceration or incapacitation. It focuses on preventing future crimes by disabling and restricting the offender's ability to commit a future wrong, and can take very different forms, including the death penalty, incarceration, house arrest and disqualification from driving for drunken drivers (see for example: Zedner, 2004).

Deterrence - like incapacitation, deterrence justifies punishment on the basis of preventing future crimes. Individual deterrence justifies the imposition of punishment to prevent the offender from committing further crimes. G eneral deterrence justifies the imposition of punishment to deter and prevent others from committing similar crimes (see for example: Hudson, 2003).

Rehabilitation - the central premise of rehabilitation theory is that punishment can prevent future crime by reforming the offender's behaviour. The purpose of punishment is to address and reduce the risk and needs of individual offenders through intervention programmes, such as education, vocational training, and treatment, including cognitive-behavioural programmes, so that they can return to society as law-abiding citizens. Its main focus is on the rehabilitation and social reintegration of offenders into society (see for example: Ashworth, 2007). The UNODC Introductory Handbook on the Prevention of Recidivism and the Social reintegration of Offenders (updated in 2018) defines rehabilitation as 'a wide variety of interventions aimed at promoting desistance from crime and the restoration of an offender to the status of a law-abiding person' (p. 127).

Reparation - the justification of reparation as punishment is based on the premise that crimes should be corrected by offenders making amends to victims to repair the wrong that they have done. According to this theory, restitution or restoration and compensation to victims, their families or communities is considered a central part of criminal justice (see for example: UNODCCP, 1999).


The Module is structured into three sub-topics:

Next:  Topic one - Introducing the aims of punishment, imprisonment and the concept of prison reform
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