Posted on

Purpose of sentencing


Sentencing comes after a person has been found guilty of a crime. There are some classical principles associated with sentencing, namely: retribution, deterrence, prevention and rehabilitation.{{more}}


Retribution generally suggests an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. This vindictive outlook is not sustained in our society today. There is certain belief that when a person commits a crime against another person he also commits it against the whole of the society. In committing a crime the offender not only hurts the victim, but offends all society. We have seen in our times the emotion that is evoked when a murder is committed. Hence the victim does not have to retaliate, but must leave it to the society to impose a punishment that is fair and is not cruel and inhuman. Our justice system is tempered by human rights considerations not to impose cruel and inhuman punishment.

Because society retaliates by imposing punishment, it is in this way that the action of society is seen as retributive. It is fairer for a neutral body to impose punishment than to allow the victim to retaliate. Punishment is almost universal and is confined to fines, imprisonment and compensation. The retributive aspect in sentencing will always be present, as it is only fair for a person who has committed a crime to suffer some consequences for his action.



Deterrence is perhaps one of the more important purposes of sentencing. Judges always want to warn the offender and deter other persons from committing crimes and perhaps it works for the majority in our society to keep them law-abiding citizens. There is, however, the question as to whether sentencing works for those repeated offenders who appear not to be able to live comfortably outside the prison gates.

The offender is to be also taught a lesson that crime does not pay. The judges most often look to the prevalence of crimes in a community and this weighs heavily against the offender. The higher the incidence of crimes, the more the judges are likely to impose stiffer penalties within their discretion.


We would all like a crime-free society so that we may go about our business unmolested, and sleep with our doors open, but this is not practical. For, despite our many pleadings and condemnations, crimes continue to affect our societies adversely. The policy is to shut away many of the repeat offenders, so as to prevent crimes. When a notable burglar is incarcerated, the community gets a respite.



Perhaps the most useful purpose of sentencing is that of rehabilitation. Traditionally, prisons have been associated with rigorous, stringent and harsh conditions, with the emphasis placed on punishment, rather than reform. We may consider that since they have broken the law, they do not deserve better treatment at the expense of taxpayers. But there is another side to this; the inmate’s freedom is already restricted; he cannot leave as he likes, he cannot conduct his own business and he must be dictated to. Is this sufficient punishment?

To reform an offender is to protect ourselves for when he leaves the prison walls. An emphasis on healthy work attitudes and acquisition of skills should be the objective of a prison sentence. We cannot allow our vengeance to eat on our society with disastrous effects. If we give offenders a definite length of sentence, it means that they would be released and have to mingle with the rest of society. Reform must be a significant feature of sentencing.

Ada Johnson is a solicitor and barrister-at-law. E-mail address is: [email protected]