The Case against Punishment: Retribution, Crime Prevention, and the Law

The Case against Punishment: Retribution, Crime Prevention, and the Law

The Case against Punishment: Retribution, Crime Prevention, and the Law

The Case against Punishment: Retribution, Crime Prevention, and the Law


"A book that can spur good discussion and stimulate critical thinking." - Law and Politics Book Review

"A finely reasoned argument on the ills of punishment.... An informative and thought provoking read." - New York Law Journal

"Philosophers of law too often assume that criminal punishment is of course justified and then argue over exactly what is the best justification for the practice- utilitarian deterrence, retribution, moral education, etc. It is important that this shared assumption be challenged and that serious consideration be given to the possibility that criminal punishment may not be justified at all. Although Professor Golash has by no means persuaded me that all criminal punishment should be totally abolished, her book is to be welcomed as an attempt to provoke serious reflection on this basic issue." - Jeffrie G. Murphy, Regents' Professor of Law, Philosophy, and Religious Studies, Arizona State University

"A work of sweeping vision and profound insight. Punishment, Golash demonstrates convincingly, is wrong in itself and counterproductive as well. That her fine book closes with a thoughtful sketch of a world without punishment is a testament to the author's intellectual range and originality." - Robert Johnson, author of Hard Time: Understanding and Reforming the Prison

What ends do we expect and hope to serve in punishing criminal wrongdoers? Does the punishment of offenders do more harm than good for American society? In The Case against Punishment, Deirdre Golash addresses these and other questions about the value of punishment in contemporary society. Drawing on both empirical evidence and philosophical literature, this book argues that the harm done by punishing criminal offenders is ultimately morally unjustified. Asserting that punishment inflicts both intended and unintended harms on offenders, Golash suggests that crime can be reduced by addressing social problems correlated with high crime rates, such as income inequality and local social disorganization. Punishment may reduce crime, but in so doing, causes a comparable amount of harm to offenders. Instead, Golash suggests, we should address criminal acts through trial, conviction, and compensation to the victim, while also providing the criminal with the opportunity to reconcile with society through morally good action rather than punishment.


As one reads history … one is absolutely sickened not by the
crimes the wicked have committed, but by the punishments the
good have inflicted.

—Oscar Wilde, “The Soul of Man under Socialism,” 1891

Punishment, at its core, is the deliberate infliction of harm in response to wrongdoing. As an institution, it is so deeply rooted in history that it is difficult even to imagine a society without it. We have grown up with it, and it seems natural and inevitable to us. At the same time, there is no denying that it is a human creation; we must accept responsibility, collectively and individually, for the harm that we do in punishing: the deprivation of life, liberty, or property, or the infliction of physical pain. We ought not to impose such harm on anyone unless we have a very good reason for doing so. This remark may seem trivially true, but the history of humankind is littered with examples of the deliberate infliction of harm by well-intentioned persons in the vain pursuit of ends which that harm did not further, or in the successful pursuit of questionable ends. These benefactors of humanity sacrificed their fellows to appease mythical gods and tortured them to save their souls from a mythical hell, broke and bound the feet of children to promote their eventual marriageability, beat slow schoolchildren to promote learning and respect for teachers, subjected the sick to leeches to rid them of excess blood, and put suspects to the rack and the thumbscrew in the service of truth. They schooled themselves to feel no pity—to renounce human compassion in the service of a higher end. The deliberate doing of harm in the mistaken belief that . . .

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