Posted on 4/10/17

Unlike other areas of law, criminal law has a higher standard for a plaintiff to prevail. There are some theories as to why our system provides for such a standard.

Theoretically, criminal law presumes a defendant’s innocence; there is a burden upon the prosecutor to prove that the defendant is guilty. Some present a theoretical approach to this rule: if the defendant were to be found guilty, the punishment is so harsh and severe that the state prefers to err on the side of innocence instead of giving out strict punishment to someone who might be innocent. Another theory is that the prosecutor has abundant resources, i.e. taxpayer money, whereas the defendant will usually have significantly fewer resources. Therefore, the system at the outset must tilt in favor of the defendant, so that the overall sum of the case, well-funded prosecution v. cash-strapped defendant, will equalize.

Purpose of Punishment

There are two general schools that discuss purpose of punishment in the criminal justice system: utilitarianism and retributivism. Utilitarianism stresses the concept of maximizing ways to make people happy. Therefore, the purpose of criminal justice, according to the Utilitarianism theory, is for general deterrence. Having harsh punishment is strong deterrent for those considering criminal behavior. If someone acts criminally, the criminal justice system should be used to “rehabilitate” the offender so that he or she does not repeat or commit another criminal act. A jail is also known as a penitentiary, from the word penance, which is proper under this theory.

The other school of thought theorizing punishment is Retributivism, which is philosophically different from Utilitarianism. Retributivism focuses on the moral culpability of a person who commits criminal acts. Retributivism believes that society needs to punish those who engage in criminal behavior. The more serious the crime the harsher the punishment. Under this theory, the criminal justice system is not used to reform inmates or inform them of consequences; instead it is a measured punishment. Referring to a jail as a penitentiary is a misnomer under this theory.

Interplay with Presumed Innocent Theories

As mentioned, Utilitarianism focuses on the rehabilitation aspect of the criminal justice system. This does not mesh well with the presumed innocent theory of punishment because Utilitarianism does not focus on punishment, it focuses on rehabilitation. It fits well with the resource theory: Society should only rehabilitate those who require rehabilitation. If there is no balance, then society would be trying to rehabilitate those who do not require such rehabilitation.

On the other hand, Retributivism works well with the innocent theory of criminal justice. Retributivism stresses punishment for bad acts; only those that commit such bad acts should be punished. Retribution should only be applicable to those who definitively deserve such retribution. It also works well with the resource theory. As before, punishment should only be meted out against those who definitively committed criminal acts. If there is an imbalance, it would be much less clear who deserves punishment.

If you have been arrested, know that the prosecutor will use significant resources to convict you. You need an advocate on your side. Contact the law firm of Christopher Abel, a board-certified criminal defense lawyer.

(image courtesy of St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s Office)

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