Tue 25 Nov 2008
Do any Google search for “punishment” and “rehabilitation” and you will find that the results tend to insert a “vs.” between the two terms. It seems that to punish (inflict some penal evil) a person is one thing, to “rehabilitate” and make them better is another.
There is a tradition, however, that argues the unlikely claim that one of the goals of punishment itself is to rehabilitate — that one punishes in order to rehabilitate. This may at first seem surprising, but it may seem even more surprising when it is further insisted upon and made clear that the punishment in mind is not some watered down “time-out” for the guilty party to think about what he or she has done wrong; rather, the line of thinking keeps fully in mind that to punish means to inflict a penalty, to make the guilty suffer an evil for what he or she has done wrong. And so we might reasonably ask the following: how does suffering an evil deliberately inflicted on us by others, cause any kind of “rehabilitation”? The answer to this is found in an underused meaning of “rehabilitation.”
I suppose the most commonly used meaning of “rehabilitation” today is “to restore or bring to a condition of health or useful and constructive activity” (Merriam Webster). This is the sense we employ when, after an injury, we say we undergo “rehab.” It is also the sense employed sometimes to describe the treatment of someone who is psychologically or emotionally disturbed. It can even be employed to describe the education of someone who has a deficient sense of moral right and wrong – after which process the person would be in a moral condition suitable for useful and constructive communal activity. But rehabilitation in this sense of the term is brought about by therapy or education, neither of which essentially involves inflicting of a penal evil. Punishment is surely distinct from both therapy and education. If punishment has rehabilitation as its end, it must aim at a different kind of rehabilitation than that described above. What then is the rehabilitation that punishment effects?
To rehabilitate also has as a meaning “to reinstate,” “to restore to good repute, reestablish the good name of” (Merriam Webster), and it is in this sense that punishment can rehabilitate. A man who willingly does wrong destroys his good standing in community, and his fellows actually have the right to hold that wrong against him. (If I, for example, on account of culpable negligence, fail to submit a blog entry on time, Prof. Banach has a right to hold this failure against me.) And the more serious the evil, the more it is held against the guilty agent. Though perhaps appropriate and just, this “holding against” is not usually all that useful. A community who holds a crime against an individual does not admit that individual into full standing in that community. They can and probably will hold that action against him until he has “made things right.” Until he does this, he and the community are in tension. And so, both the guilty person, and the person who has care for the common good have an interest in rectifying this unfortunate situation.
One part of making things right is restitution. If a man smashed my mail box, one thing he must do in order to be restored to good standing in the community is replace my mail box. But sometimes simply making restitution is not enough. We can see this if we compare two cases.
In the first case, while driving his car, Fred, through negligence, looses track of where he is on the road and veers too close to my mailbox and destroys it. He’s not usually negligent, but he was this time. He did not mean to do this, but he is responsible. If he replaces my mail box, and he has not terribly inconvenienced me, all is well. If he does not replace my mailbox he would be in the wrong and I would justly hold this wrong against him. But if he does replace my mailbox I would be a jerk (unjust) to continue to hold this mistake against him. In this case, simply by making restitution, Fred is restored to good standing with me.
Now consider a second case: Tim is out with a group of friends having a whooping good time. And what is more fun after a few beers than driving around smashing mailboxes with a baseball bat? Tim and his friends, however, get caught. Unlike in Fred’s case, the wrong they have done was not beside their intention; they didn’t do it out of negligence, they did it deliberately. Everyone who had his mailbox smashed will hold these acts against Tim and his friends. They will hold against them both the destruction of their property and the interior disposition of the culprits during their act. They will probably even speak badly of Tim and his friends in the community; they will tell (inform and remind) others of the evil Tim and friends did.
Now even if Tim and his friends replace all the mailboxes they smashed (which they might do by the force of law), people may reasonably hold this act against them. Restoration of the damaged property was enough for Fred because he did not intend the evil he did. But Tim and his friends knew what they were doing, and they meant to do it. Victims and other members of the community may continue justly to hold this act against them.
Now what if Tim and his friends sincerely want to be fully restored to good standing in the community? Can something be done that would demand that people give up holding their crime against them? How might this occur? By restoring the damaged property, they paid one kind of debt. Undergoing punishment is the way to pay the moral debt.
Two of the purposes of punishment are retribution (getting what you deserve) and rehabilitation. One thing retribution demands is that the punishment fit the crime and not be excessive (“an eye for an eye” sets a limit on punishment). The principle of retribution says “You may not inflict more than this much evil, because that would be punishing the culprit more than he deserves.” The goal of rehabilitation, on the other hand, sets a kind of minimum standard of punishment; the person must be punished at least this much so that the victims and community might be obliged to give up holding the crime against him. If a person has been adequately punished for a crime, then victims and the community are obliged by the demands of justice to no longer hold the man’s crime against him! (This is the brighter side of punishment.) For the good of the guilty person, then, so that he might be restored to the moral community, a judge must select and impose an adequately serious evil. After an adequate punishment, the judge and the punished can justly demand that the community give up holding the crime against the punished.
This feature of punishment as rehabilitation is used very effectively in the movie The Green Mile. One of the characters in the movie, Arlen Bitterbuck, is on death row and is eventually executed. He never denies his guilt, nor does he protest his impending execution. He expresses the hope that by being truly repentant and undergoing his punishment, he might be granted a moral restoration:
You think if a man sincerely repents on what he done wrong, he might get to go back to the time that was happiest for him and live there forever? Could that be what heaven is like?
Most of the guards in the movie treat Bitterbuck with sufficient respect. The exception, however, and the villain of the movie, is Percy Wetmore, described as “mean, careless, and stupid.” After Bitterbuck’s execution, Percy crudely mocks the body: “Adios, Chief. Drop us a card from hell, let us know if it’s hot enough.” But one of the other guards violent objects to Percy’s treatment of Bitterbuck: “He’s paid what he’s owed. He’s square with the house again, so keep your goddamn hands off him.”
Bitterbuck has undergone the ultimate punishment of death. We are left to believe that the punishment fits the crime – he’s not being punished more than he deserves, so the demands of retribution has not been violated. But what is very revealing is that after his execution Bitterbuck has a renewed moral standing. Before, because of his crime, he was a kind of second class citizen. After his punishment, he’s “square with the house again.” No one can justly hold his crime against him anymore.
Punishment is not always at odds with rehabilitation. In fact, sometimes punishment, real punishment, is the only way to bring about rehabilitation.