Justice and Retribution

Bryn Horner
3 min readNov 5, 2020

When should we blame people and hold them morally responsible for their actins? According to Philosophers interviewed in this podcast, punishment is not an adequate way to respond to criminal behavior.

Marilyn Winn is a woman who was previously in and out of jail for crimes that she unwillingly committed. When I say unwillingly- I mean that she seemingly did not have a ‘choice’. To be specific, Winn was caught stealing as a result of her inability to get a job after being in the prison system. One day, she asked the judge on her case for forgiveness- forgiveness for her wrongs, as she could not survive without stealing. She did not want to steal, but was forced to in order to provide for herself. Rather than being put back into the system, Winn as given a job. She turned her life of freedom into something commendable, creating an organization in Atlanta that not only reduced their overall crime rates, but rehabilitates criminals rather than putting them into prison. This therefore leads to less prisoners, which supports her ultimate goal of abolishing the Atlanta City Detention Center. They created something called pre arrest diversion, which directs police officers to divert arrest by calling their organization for people who would benefit better from rehabilitation. When asked if people deserve punishment, Winn responds: “No it’s not true, they don’t. It’s something else that they need, it’s a service” (6). Agreeing with this statement is Philosopher Greg Caruso. He does not believe in punishment, and states that people do not have control over their actions. Alike Winn, he believes that mental illness is a driving force for crime. The conditions of someones life and well being is a driving force for crime. Caruso emphasizes the idea of someones making, their zygote and background. One cannot determine their genetics- so how can they possibly responsible for their actions when they are not responsible for acting the way they do?

On the contrary, Philosopher Kimberly Ferzan, a retributivist, believes that regardless of their genetic makeup, a person has enough of a free will to be responsible for their actions. Basically, one who does harmful actions deserved to be punished because they chose to do the action. Another Philosopher Erin Kelly gives a moderate interpretation of responsibility. Kelly focuses on the virtuous ways to respond to moral wrongdoing- such as working to repair, forgiveness, and understanding. Alike the people mentioned earlier, Kelly believes that people may not be solely responsible for their wrongdoing. Kelly states that “the state is only in a position to dish out punishment when it has fulfilled its other duties of justice — things like fair distribution of economic resources and opportunities, equal protection under the law. If the state fails to do this, then punishing criminals is like a dictator punishing an associate for a murder he ordered” (12). This carries back to the earlier themes in the podcast that emphasize the issue that people are put in survival situations and commit crime to survive.

Of these arguments, I agree with them all. I think they all have their strengths and weaknesses. The idea of retributivists makes sense- how could we not punish people for wrongdoing? And it seems more in depth than that. For some instances, people do commit crimes with their free will. This happens for the majority. People are well aware that they are committing a crime and do it anyway- so they should be punished. However, the punishment does not necessarily need to be jail. As Winn said, what many of these people need is a service. Rehabilitation or other services may better serve society than locking people up in prison to not better themselves as humans whatsoever. Although I do believe people have free will and control their actions, there are situational circumstances that should determine their punishment or consequence.

Lam, Barry. (2020). Justice and Retribution. Hi-Phi Nation. S4:E8. https://hiphination.org/season-4-episodes/s4-episode-6-justice-and-retribution-june-6th-2020/.