What is the Theory of Criminal Justice?

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  • Written By: M. Lupica
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 26 December 2019
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The theory of criminal justice involves four main philosophies that drive the policies that determine how a government handles its problems with crime. The first two, punishment theory and retributive theory, are intertwined. The idea in each is to punish the criminal, with retributive theory focused on the satisfaction of the victim for such punishment. The other two primary theories of criminal justice, deterrent theory and reformation theory, are aimed at preventing future crimes. They seek to achieve this aim either by discouraging others to commit the same crimes or transforming the individual criminal into a productive member of society.

Punishment theory of criminal justice espouses the idea that people should suffer repercussions for the wrongs they commit against society. It is a simple theory focused on negative consequences for undesirable acts. Those who criticize this theory of criminal justice argue that it is a short-sighted policy. Although the criminal may be getting what he or she is deemed to deserve for his or her actions in some sense, there is no positive practical benefit, and all society is left with is a hardened criminal.


Similar to this philosophy is retributive theory of criminal justice, though the focus is on the victim rather than the criminal. The idea is that the victim of a crime should be entitled to the satisfaction of seeing the person who harmed him or her suffer negative consequences for his or her actions. The arguments against this philosophy are similar to those for punishment theory; there is no practical benefit to society if the end is simply to punish the wrongdoer.

Deterrence theory of criminal justice is the first of the four philosophies that espouses the view that criminal justice should be focused on the big picture, rather than just the individuals involved in the crime at hand. At the core of this philosophy is the idea that if people see others suffering negative repercussions for their actions, it will discourage them from doing so. Critics of deterrence theory contend that the threat of punishment does not significantly reduce crime as proponents of the theory argue. Furthermore, deterrence theory often entails heavy penalties for crimes to achieve the intended effect, resulting in sentences that are more severe than is reasonable for the crime.

The final theory of criminal justice is reformation theory, which is a progressive theory aimed at turning criminals into productive members of society. Proponents of reformation theory argue that social programs operated through the prisons can give criminals practical skills that they may use upon release back into society, which will make it less likely they will resort back to crime. Critics deride the costs of the programs as a poor use of citizens’ tax dollars.


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