In the spirit of Sensei's Node Your Homework, here's an essay from my Political Science class. This was written in response to the prompt "Is avenging crime a proper aim of government?". Most of the ideas presented here are direct responses to questions and situations posed by Glenn Tinder in his book "Political Thinking: The Perennial Questions". I strongly recommend the book as good fodder for honing one's essay writing skills.
In asking this question, we must consider what is the purpose of law. Is the law a means of instituting order or morality upon society, or perhaps both? The primary issue at stake is that morality is by no means an absolute and cannot be arbitrarily decided by the government. As the government enacts laws based upon the opinions of the people or their duly elected representatives, this might be viewed as fair by many. However, this removes utterly the rights of any moral minority. They are subject absolutely to laws which they do not feel are just. This obviously is an unacceptable system. It is impossible and foolhardy to compel a person to follow a moral code that is not their own. This leads to protest and often outright insurrection.
What then, is the purpose of law? While one may acknowledge the right of the individual to decide morality for himself, one must bow to the fact that human human beings live in a society. Humans must be able to interact safely with one another despite their differences. The solution to this is a set of practical laws which allows people to live in harmony. The law must strive to safeguard the common good.
Obviously, once a law has been broken, the law has failed to a certain degree already. What then, becomes the responsibility of the law to both the criminal and the society in which he lives and in which he perpetrated his crime? If the law cannot dictate morality to the people, one must turn to practicality for a course of action. The practical question is how to prevent this crime from occurring again. One can classify criminals according to how suitable they are to return to society. At one end of the spectrum there are those who, upon witnessing the horror of what they have done, repent instantly and will never again commit a crime. Next is the person who, with some time for reflection and some coaching, sees the error of their ways and will never again commit a crime. Then there are those who do not recognize how unsuitable their actions are and must be kept from society for the sake of the common good. These can be divided into two categories: those who will repent one day and those who never will.
Obviously, the criminals who repent and will never commit another crime can, in a practical sense, be let free. Those who are still a danger to society must be held until they no longer are. It is irresponsible to let a criminal return to a society which they may harm again. However, it is equally, if not more, irresponsible to give up all hope of helping the criminal see the light. As a living, breathing human being they have the right to learn from their mistakes. If one just gives up on a person, then we have accomplished nothing. For this reason, capital punishment is impractical and unfair to the person the criminal might become. If a person genuinely reforms and will never again commit a crime, this person is, for all intents and purposes, not the same man who was originally thrown into jail. If looked upon with fresh eyes, this person is no more deserving of punishment than any other. In a practical sense, he is just as innocent as the next man.
A better means of detaining criminals would be to give them as little to do as possible except to dwell on what they had done. Complete sensory deprivation, were it not a form of brutal torture, would be extremely effective. Something akin to it, but less devastating to the psyche would prove far more successful than the present penal system. Many criminals face better conditions in jail than they would normally. If given minimal contact with the outside world and nothing to do but think about what they had done, a good number might genuinely reform. Those who did not would face an appropriate punishment of isolation from the society they had wronged.
In conclusion, an effective system of law is one that protects the citizens subject to it. By incarcerating those who are a danger to society until they are reformed, this is achieved. However, punishing criminals who no longer are criminals at heart serves no practical purpose but to force another person's morality upon people who do not deserve such treatment. If a criminal truly reforms, then there is no reason to incarcerate them and certainly there is no reason to simply execute a person and give up all hope for them. There is always hope for everybody. As a human being they deserve at least that much.