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More needed than retribution alone for satisfaction with criminal justice

For justice to be done after a crime, most people feel that retribution alone is not enough. These are the results of research by Leiden University and the University of Mannheim (Germany). Publication in Plos One.

If someone commits murder, robs a bank or breaks the speed limit, they deserve to be punished. But what is the main reason to punish this person and when is a punishment proportionate to the crime? Some people think that punishment should mainly be about retribution: the offender harmed society, so society should ‘harm’ the offender in the form of a prison sentence, community service or a fine. According to American professor Michael S. Moore, this so-called retributive justice is sufficient for justice to be done after a crime.

Fictional rape case

However, an experiment by philosopher Andrei Poama (Leiden University) and data scientist Paul C. Bauer (University of Mannheim) has shown that for many people retribution alone does not suffice for them to feel that justice has been done. Other considerations also seem to be at play in a judgment about how to punish an offender: remorse or repentance, for instance. Moore’s claim does not up entirely.

To test the claim, Poama and Bauer presented about 900 respondents with a fictional case in which a young woman had been brutally raped after visiting a café. The fictional perpetrator could respond to his punishment in six different ways. He could, for instance, be unhappy in prison but do nothing to repent for his crime or he could accept his prison sentence and do his best to offer an apology.

No justice without moral change

According to Michael S. Moore’s theory, for our sense of justice it would suffice for the perpetrator to be unhappy with his prison sentence. Many of the respondents had a very different opinion about this. Retributive justice played an important role for them, but more as a means than as an end in itself. The penal suffering of offenders is mainly seen as a tool that tells us whether they have understood that their crime was morally wrong. The test respondents found suffering without moral change much less satisfying.

‘‘You sometimes hear how important retributive justice is for many people,’ says Poama. ‘Some political parties try to appeal to these people by calling for tougher sentences as retribution for a crime. But in practice many people appear to find other aspects much more important, particularly if you present them with a criminal case. If this already hold true for a vicious rape, I expect it to be even more so with a more minor offence such as a robbery.’

Text: Merijn van Nuland

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