From Revenge to Reparation

By Peters, Tony | UNESCO Courier, June 1998 | Go to article overview

From Revenge to Reparation


Peters, Tony, UNESCO Courier


Penal policy takes a new direction by confronting offenders with the consequences of their acts and giving them a chance to make amends

Over the past few decades, more attention has been focused on the victims of crime than on criminals. This raises two questions. How far do legal systems take into account victims' demands for justice in the sentences they mete out to offenders? And to what extent do sentences respond to those demands?

Eighteenth-century theories of law and justice developed by the Enlightenment philosophers in Europe form the basis of what is now regarded as classical penal procedure, whose non-arbitrary character is quite different from the procedure that prevailed before the French Revolution. Many forms of corporal punishment disappeared and were replaced by simple, clear-cut punishments like fines and prison sentences.

In the nineteenth century, the purpose of prison sentences was to make criminals pay their debt to society. Incarceration temporarily kept offenders out of the way while serving as an example and a warning. Imprisonment was also supposed to give offenders time to reflect on their misdeeds.

With the citizen's safety uppermost in mind, classical penologists emphasized a strictly legal definition of crime and punishment. However, as a result of the growing influence of the behavioural sciences views of delinquency changed and the idea that a single sentence is appropriate for all offenders regardless of the crime committed came under attack. A new trend emerged whereby sentencing was required to take each offender's circumstances and personal history into account. Sentencing criteria were no longer based on the legal definition of the crime but on the threat to society posed by the offender. A battery of alternatives to fit specific individuals and situations were developed from the late nineteenth century onwards, including prison terms for hardened criminals, suspended sentences and probation for occasional offenders and protective and rehabilitation systems for young delinquents. Sentences were seen as a useful means of reintegrating the criminal into society.

Crowded prisons

After the Second World War and the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights, new alternatives to prison opened up prospects of more humane sentencing with a view to reintegrating offenders into society. But these hopes came to nothing and alternative sentences remained by and large marginal. Imprisonment did not become a solution of last resort.

In the 1970s, the flagrant inhumanity of correctional facilities, the psychological impact of incarceration and the social exclusion resulting from this form of punishment resulted in a growing scepticism about the prison system's capacity to rehabilitate inmates. In many facilities they also led to strikes, revolts and uprisings, which were sometimes violently put down. …

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