Magazine article UNESCO Courier

An Institution on Trial

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

An Institution on Trial

Article excerpt

Prison causes more ethical, social, psychological and economic problems than it solves. What can be done to improve the penal system?

In the late twentieth century, an age of supposedly scientific penology, humanity has far to go before it reaches that perfect state where it can do away with prisons. Modern society still finds it necessary to respond to crime with punishment.

The retributive character of penal measures stems directly from the nature of the apparatus used to fight crime. In spite of advances in criminology in discovering the causes of crime, there still remains a probability that crimes and misdemeanours will be committed, and the threat of sanctions as a deterrent is thus indispensable.

But if punishment is a necessity, it must not infringe certain inalienable human rights. Above all, penalties must be proportional to the wrong that has been caused and to the offender's degree of culpability. The principle in physics that every action gives rise to an equal and opposite reaction might be applied here. But perhaps the idea of the just penalty is a utopian dream. Although a perfect solution is unattainable, a reasonable solution must be sought, which means proceeding, as in mathematics, by successive approximations, setting the offence and its consequences against the sacrifice imposed on the perpetrator by the punishment inflicted. What, for instance, is the point of inflicting a penalty involving loss of civil rights on someone who has already brought his own name into disrepute?

Regrettably, prison continues to generate more ethical, social, psychological and economic problems than it solves. In practice, the rehabilitation desired by many systems of criminal law around the world ends in disillusionment, despair and revolt against a society that closes its doors to ex-convicts. The judicial system is still seeking ways to carry out penal sanctions that provide adequate responses to the need for the psychological rehabilitation of offenders and their reintegration into society.

There is an urgent need to find alternatives to custodial sentences, so that offenders - with the exception of those who pose a definite and continuing threat - can be re-educated for productive lives in society. Every penologist knows that most criminals retain some vestiges of morality, feel rejected and scorned, seek forgiveness from their families and the community for the offence they have committed and frequently acknowledge the validity of their punishment. They often turn themselves in, and remorse even leads some of them to take their own lives. …

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