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Crime, Punishment, and Prevention

The Public Interest, Vol. 142, pp. 61-71, Winter 2001

11 Pages Posted: 4 Feb 2005  

Paul H. Robinson

University of Pennsylvania Law School


The criminal justice system has traditionally been seen as in the business of doing justice: punishing offenders for crimes committed. Yet, the past decade has brought a shift from punishing past crimes to preventing future crimes through the incarceration and control of dangerous offenders. Habitual offender statutes, like three strikes laws, sentence repeat offenders to life imprisonment. Jurisdictional reforms lower the age at which juveniles may be tried as adults, increasing the available terms of imprisonment beyond those of juvenile court. Gang membership and recruitment are criminalized. Megan's Law statutes require community notification of a convicted sex offender. Sexual predator statutes provide for civil detention of offenders who remain dangerous at the conclusion of their criminal term. Sentencing guidelines increase the sentence of offenders who have a prior criminal history, for these offenders are seen as the most likely to commit future crimes. The shift from punishment toward prevention has not been accompanied by a corresponding change in how the system advertises itself. It still presents itself as a system of criminal justice that imposes punishment. It is impossible, of course, to punish dangerousness, within the meaning of those terms.

To punish is to cause a person to undergo pain, loss, or suffering for a crime or wrongdoing. Punishment can only exist in relation to a past harm or evil. Dangerous means likely to cause injury, pain, etc., that is, a threat of future harm. One can restrain or detain or incapacitate a dangerous person, but one cannot logically punish dangerousness.

Yet our current criminal justice system increasingly fosters ambiguity between punishment and prevention , as if one could punish dangerousness. Why the shift to preventive detention? Why the wish to keep the old criminal justice window dressing?

Keywords: preventive detention, dangerousness, incapacitation, punishment

JEL Classification: K14

Suggested Citation

Robinson, Paul H., Crime, Punishment, and Prevention. The Public Interest, Vol. 142, pp. 61-71, Winter 2001. Available at SSRN:

Paul Robinson (Contact Author)

University of Pennsylvania Law School ( email )

3501 Sansom Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104
United States

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