The Time Frame Challenge to Retributivism
Of One-Eyed and Toothless Miscreants: Making the Punishment Fit the Crime? (Oxford University Press, 2019, ed. Michael Tonry)
26 Pages Posted: 12 Nov 2018 Last revised: 29 May 2020
Date Written: November 12, 2018
Retributivists believe that criminal offenders should suffer or be punished in proportion to what they morally deserve. There is, however, an often-ignored debate as to whether desert should be assessed across a person’s life (the “whole life” view) or only for crimes that are the subject of a current sentencing proceeding (the “current crime” view). Both options are unappealing. The whole life view may be superior on theoretical grounds but is hopelessly impractical. The current crime view is somewhat more practical but has no solid theoretical foundation. The lack of a suitable time frame in which to assess desert represents an important challenge to retributivist conceptions of proportionality. Even uncertainty about the proper time frame may itself be detrimental to some retributivists’ hopes of justifying the incarcerative sentences of particular offenders.
Keywords: retributivism, consequentialism, justification, whole life, current crime
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