What use are Punishments?

ARTE films documentary with Max Planck researcher Philipp Hirsch

October 30, 2023

If you do something wrong, you get punished. But do punishments really accomplish what we want them to? This question is explored in a documentary produced by the German-French television channel ARTE. Experts from the fields of criminology, psychology, and law voice their views. Among them: criminal law theorist Philipp Alexander Hirsch, research group leader at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Crime, Security and Law in Freiburg.

In the Middle Ages, there was no effective criminal prosecution. The (sometimes drastic) punishments served primarily as a deterrent; in addition, those punished were supposed to do penance for their wrongdoing. According to Philipp Hirsch, the idea of retribution still exists today in the debate on punishment theory. To this day, there are two ideological camps: the retributivists and the proponents of the preventive theory of punishment, which is concerned with deterrence.

Philipp Hirsch explains the German legal system:

"At the beginning there is the threat of punishment." This threat clearly aims at deterrence; future punishments are to be avoided." Then comes the moment when the sentence is imposed and the penalty is determined". This serves to compensate for the wrongdoing, i.e. retribution. "At the other end of the spectrum is the enforcement of the sentence". In Germany, the latter is geared especially towards the resocialization and rehabilitation of the offender.

The film reveals that Germany attempts to unite all three objectives: deterrence (through the threat of punishment), retribution (through the imposition of sentences), and resocialization (through the enforcement of sentences). In other countries like France and Norway, however, resocialization of the offender is paramount. To achieve this goal, Norway is particularly willing to spend a lot of money on resocialization projects.

"Here in Germany, we first segregate offenders so that they can later integrate themselves better into the community. How absurd is that?" one psychologist is quoted as saying. All experts agree that the idea of imposing a prison sentence should always be carefully considered and that punishment and reintegration should always be "understood to be linked". "It would be a shame if punishment remained the only reason to be a good person," the documentary concludes.

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