How the Justice System Can Reward ‘Going Straight’

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Photo by Rae Allen via Flickr

After punishment, is there room for society to acknowledge an offender’s efforts to turn his or her life around?

Two researchers at the University of Pennsylvania Law School argue that the criminal justice system should publicly celebrate cases where those who have been convicted of a crime show remorse and atone for their behavior.

“The criminal justice system traditionally performed its public functions – condemning criminal conduct, shaming and stigmatizing violators, promoting societal norms – through the use of negative examples: convicting and punishing criminal offenders,” wrote Paul H. Robinson and Muhammad Sarahne in a research paper entitled The Opposite of Punishment: Imagining a Path to Public Redemption.

”One could imagine, however, that the same public functions could also be performed through the use of positive examples.”

Creating a path to redemption and offering uplifting examples of those who have taken this path would encourage others to do the same, the authors maintained. It would allow those who have been convicted to think of their future instead of dwelling on the past.

“It shows that their future is not irrevocably tragic,” the authors wrote. “Public redemption, as the stream of examples show, is indeed possible, even by a person who was once exactly in the situation in which the offender is now.”

An opportunity for redemption is also beneficial to the victim’s family and to society overall because it increases the likelihood of positive reentry into society and sends positive messages.

“The offender’s public show of genuine remorse and wish to atone serves to reaffirm the importance of the social norm that was violated, and serves to reinforce the shame and stigma associated with the violation,” the paper said.

“Each case reinforces for members of the larger community that criminal offenders are indeed redeemable.”

The paper argued that the distinction between “the predator and the repentant” needs to be recognized by both those who favor anti-punishment and those who favor law and order.

“Society cannot exist without a system of punishment for wrongdoing,” the paper said.

“At the same time,…if one is genuinely concerned about doing justice, then one must be as concerned about punishing too much as punishing too little, and true remorse and repentance calls for reduced punishment.”

Conviction leaves a permanent mark on an individual, and limits his or her future accordingly, the authors wrote.

“But if the criminal justice system produced not only a stream of criminal convictions and punishments but also highlighted a series of personal atonements resulting in public redemptions, the existence of a path to public redemption might alter some offender’s perspective.”

In order to be allowed public redemption, those who have committed crimes must show genuine remorse and willingness to atone by confessing and apologizing, the authors suggested. However, apologies may come at different stages depending on the person.

“A person can have an epiphany about their life path at any time,” the paper said. “An offender may not reach a state of true remorse until after losing at trial and serving some time in prison. As long as the feeling is genuine, there ought to be no time constraint.”

Another sign of genuine remorse is a willingness to accept the punishment for their crime, the paper argued.

“Maneuvering for a punishment reduction suggests that the remorse is not genuine but more likely a false expression motivated by self-benefit. True remorse means accepting the propriety of one’s deserved punishment,” said the paper.

The authors said the justice authorities should consider a system in which a party similar to a jury in the judicial branch determines an individual’s redemption and, like a criminal conviction, this redemption would be made known to the public.

However, they point out that this is probably unlikely to gain political support, and instead suggest that governors used the system of public redemption to determine which individuals to pardon.

“Our criminal justice history has been almost exclusively based upon advertising the negative example of conviction and punishment as the means by which we condemn prohibited conduct, stigmatize violators, and promote societal norms,” the paper concluded.

“Perhaps it is worth at least experimenting with a system of positive examples to promote these same important goals.”

The full paper can be downloaded here.

This summary was prepared by TCR news intern Maria Trovato.

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