The Purpose Of Punishment -- By: W. E. C. Wright

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 059:236 (Oct 1902)
Article: The Purpose Of Punishment
Author: W. E. C. Wright

The Purpose Of Punishment

W. E. C. Wright

Olivet College, Michigan

INTEREST in the reformation of criminals is one of the glories of this generation. Like the earlier world-wide movement for the abolition of slavery, this effort to reform prisoners is a sign of a higher valuation of man. If one who has committed crime can be made into a safe, honest, and useful citizen, it is a great achievement—both for himself and for society. Its importance must not, however, lead us to regard the individual’s reformation as the only purpose the law can rightly have in view when it punishes. The punishment may well have relation to other individuals, also, and to society as a whole. In fact, the main purpose of punishment is the protection of society from crime. The saving of the offender is secondary to the saving of society. Reform him, if possible, while protecting the general public; but protect society, whatever becomes of the criminal.

In the case of the lighter crimes, and especially when committed for the first time or by juvenile offenders, the protection of society can be secured by means which may at the same time be effective for reforming the individual. A due measure of restraint, combined with compulsory training of mind and hand for some honest industry, may serve both purposes,—may sufficiently warn observers against his course of crime, and at the same time develop in him the steadfast purpose of an upright life.

In other cases, a crime may show the offender to be like a finger in which gangrene has gone so far that the finger cannot be saved; it must be amputated to save the rest of the body. If we call crime a disease, we should recognize that it is a disease of society as a whole, rather than of the individual criminal. What is needed is not so much to stop the criminal from his crimes as to stop the production of such as he. A forger is sent to prison, not simply to cure him, so that he will not again sign another man’s name, but more to keep business safe from the growth of this crime. His punishment may hold back scores of other men from resorting to forgery when in business difficulties. His too easy pardon may make such an impression of public indifference to the crime as will seriously lessen in many minds the motives for business integrity. In the case of spectacular crimes, leniency may turn the criminal into a hero in the eyes of the ill-balanced, and make his career fascinating.

When sympathy for those who have broken the law is permitted to run riot over consideration for the public good, the greatest mischief may result. This led the warden’s wife in Pittsburg to help the Biddle brothers break out of the prison in which they were confined u...

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