Rehabilitation ought to be valued above retribution in the United States criminal justice system

Resolved: Rehabilitation ought to be valued above retribution in the United States criminal justice system.


Response from Pro:

Definition of Terms

Retribution- punishment that is justly deserved
Rehabilitation- This is the approach to justice which focuses on helping criminals see the error of their ways and once again making them productive members of society with better understanding of their moral obligation.

My value today will be Utilitarianism, which is defined as the principle that all actions are right if they are useful for the benefit of the society. My value criterion in today”s debate will be societal welfare, which is the well being of the society. My job as the affirmative, judge, is to prove to you that the criminal justice system ought to value rehabilitation over retribution. And it”s as simple as this: by rehabilitating people we are saving lives and bettering our society. I will further prove my affirmative stance with three contentions.

Contention One: Rehabilitation can help our community.
The New York Times, December 2, 2012.

“But first, we need to stop using punishment as a principal justification for lengthy prison terms and, instead, reserve prison for those who pose a grave risk to public safety. Punishment, where productive, could still be employed through sanctions and local supervision of graduated intensity. But instead of going to prison, low-risk offenders should stay in the community. This emphasis on results over retribution would bring many benefits. Not only would it help redeem America’s image abroad, but it would also help restore many communities that have come to regard prison as a rite of passage. Also, offenders not in prison are better able to pay restitution to victims.”

People today just don”t see prison as a threat anymore. Instead of tearing people away from their families for one drug offence, maybe we should focus on getting them ready to function well in society. While at the same time, opening up prisons to people who actually need to be there. Not only would it help our society, it would make it safer.

Contention Two: Retribution has strong negative effects on children and families.
The New York Times, December 2, 2012.

“Perhaps the most harmful result of needlessly incarcerating low-risk, nonviolent offenders is what it does to families, especially children. More than one-third of children with a parent in prison drop out of school. Youth whose parents go to prison are seven times more likely to be convicted of a crime as adults. But data can’t measure the pain of families torn apart by harsh sentences that are ineffective, unhealthy and unfair. Most of these people need treatment, not punishment. Prison doesn’t treat their problems, doesn’t make communities safer and rips apart innocent families whose wounds may not heal for generations.”

Why hurt one person, one family, when we can help an entire community. Retribution is not effective anymore.

Contention Three: Rehabilitation is more cost effective.
“Rehab or Prison?”, May, 2010

“According to the Minnesota House of Representatives, it costs approximately $32,700 of taxpayer money every year for each inmate in our state”s prison system. There are around 9,000 inmates in the prison system in Minnesota. So let”s do the math. These figures add up to about $294,300,000 each year, just in one state! Providing treatment outside of jail is more cost-effective. It costs about $2,000 to $7,000 per person. Drug treatment inside jail or prison costs $24 more per day than basic costs of incarceration. The Drug Treatment Alternative to Prison (DTAP) program is being used in Brooklyn, New York. The average cost of putting someone in the program is $32,974, compared to the $64,338 needed to send him or her to prison for 25 months, or the average prison sentence for drug offenders. This program cuts the cost to the community by half!”

One common misconception about rehab is it costs too much. But what we need to realize is keeping someone in prison is way more. Our tax dollars are going towards food and boarding for a prisoner when they could be going towards making them better and helping the offender.

As I stated earlier judge, my job is to show that our criminal justice system ought to value rehabilitation over retribution, and I”ve done just that. Not only is it morally right and good for society, it”s much cheaper than prison. Retribution, in many cases, is dealt unfairly. In our justice system, people sometimes don”t have equal treatment in the courts. If you have more money, you have a better lawyer, and you have a lighter sentence. There is simply nothing good about retribution. Instead of punishing one person for a mistake, lets prepare for a life in society, helping the community. It is for these reasons and many more I respectfully ask for an affirmative ballot in today”s debate.

Response from Con:

My opponent expressed an intention to defend the claim that “Rehabilitation ought to be valued above retribution in the United States criminal justice system.” As such, she is assuming the burden of proof and placing none on me. Although ordinarily in a debate, I would try my best to defeat my opponent’s arguments, in this case, I’m genuinely interested in arriving at the truth. If my opponent convinces me of her point of view, I will concede and gladly hand the victory to her.

Utilitarianism in principle

Pro defines utilitarianism as “the principle that all actions are right if they are useful for the benefit of the society.” Ever since utilitarianism was first thought of and given a name, it has come under attack, and the attacks usually take the form of coming up with obvious counter-examples. One only needs to come up with some scenario in which an action would benefit society but still be obviously wrong. For example, it may benefit society to kill an innocent man, but it wouldn’t for that reason be right. So Pro needs to give us a robust defense of utilitarianism against such counter-examples before her argument can go through.

I’ll give her one counter-example to defend against. It would benefit society if all old people who are living off of social security and medicare were put to sleep. Health care is the biggest burden on the federal government with most recipients being elderly people.[1] Putting those people to sleep would be a huge relief to tax-payers, and it would go a long way in rescuing the country from the impending doom from a growing debt and increased taxes. Yet it’s clearly wrong to kill people just because they are a burden on society.

Utilitarianism in practice

Even if we use utilitarian principles to determine our justice system, Pro needs to show that rehabilitation works. How successful are rehabilitation programs? How would we even measure such a thing?

Suppose somebody commits a crime and goes to prison. After undergoing some rehabilitation program, he re-enters society and never commits the crime again. You might be tempted to say the rehabilitation worked, but you can’t know that since you don’t know that he would’ve committed the crime if he had not gone through the program. He might not have committed the crime anyway.

Some people are repeat offenders and some are not, so it’s going to be difficult to determine whether rehabilitation programs work or not.


Pro defined retribution as “punishment that is justly deserved.” The problem with putting more emphasis on rehabilitation rather than retribution is that it’s not fair. Some people would get more punishment than they deserve while others would get less. The reason is because the length of stay or the severity of the conditions of imprisonment would be determined by what it takes to rehabilitate a person rather than what they deserve.

Suppose, for example, that in general it took longer to rehabilitate people who smoke marijuana than to rehabilitate people who commit rape. If we emphasized rehabilitation over retribution, then marijuana smokers would get longer sentences than rapists. But rape is clearly a more serious crime than smoking marijuana. It would be unfair to give a marijuana smoker a longer sentence than a rapist just because it takes longer to rehabilitate a marijuana smoker.

The 8th amendment to the Constitution protects against cruel and unusual punishment. Depending on what it actually took to rehabilitate somebody, the punishment inflicted on a person could easiliy be cruel and unusual in light of the crime they are guilty of. The severity of the punishment should be proportional to the severity of the crime. That is fair. It’s also the definition of retribution.

Pro’s contentions

All of Pro’s contentions presuppose utilitarianism–a presupposition which I have already challenged. But if we grant utilitarianism for the sake of argument, her contentions still seem to be problematic.

1. Rehabilitation can help our community

Pro quotes an article from the New York Times, but the article doesn’t say anything about rehabilitation. Rather, it argues that long prison sentences should be reserved for people who are dangerous to society. The purpose of prison, according to this article, is neither retribution nor rehabilitation, but simply protecting society from dangerous people by locking them up.

2. Retribuation has strong negative effects on children and families

This is true in some cases, although the article she quotes doesn’t support her contention. The article points out correlations between parents going to prison and children dropping out of school, but correlation is not causation. It could be there’s a correlation just because of the kind of families these people are a part of. Trashy people are more likely to drop out of schooland commit crimes, so trashiness could be the cause of both.

Granted, it is unfair for children to have to suffer because of the crimes of their parents, but it is unfair of the parents to have put their kids in that situation. It isn’t unfair of the government. In fact, giving criminals what they deserve is the very definition of fairness. And in many cases, putting parents in prison actually protects the children. That is especially the case when the parent is going to prison for murdering the mother or molesting the children.

3. Rehabilitation is more cost effective

Pro quotes an article saying that it’s more cost effective to send a drug user to rehab than to prison. The weakness in this contention is that it takes ones specific crime and attempts to extrapolate to all crimes. The resolution of the debate is that rehabilitation ought to be valued above retribution in general, not just for the specific crime of drug use. Rehabilitation may work in the case of drug use because people on drugs want to get off. But we can’t extrapolate that to all crimes. Muder, theft, robbery, fraud, tax evasion, money laundering, pedophilia, rape, domestic violence, etc. cannot be fixed by rehabilitation in the same way drug addiction can, and prison is more effective at protecting society from these types of criminals than rehabilitation.


We mustn’t think that it’s either retribution or rehabilitation. We can have both. The question is which should be emphasized. Retribution is based on the moral principles of fairness, blame, culpability, and desert. Pro needs to undermine these moral principles and defend utilitarianism.