What is reformative or educative theory of punishment?

As the name suggests, punishment is given for the purpose of reforming the criminal. This is the first order principal, so the theories like the Deterrent theory are out. The supporters of this theory believe that a man commits a crime because, either he is ignorant, or because he has done a wrong, he may be in position to improve. In western countries therefore the prison chaplain visits the criminal in prison, explains to him the difference between right and wrong, with a hope that once he understands this, he will refrain from doing the wrong. But perhaps this appears to be too optimistic, but the supporters are convinced that it is possible to reform a criminal, and that punishment is one of the ways of doing it.

Traditionally, Plato has been regarded as the father of the Reformative theory and his position can be summarized in the following three positions:

  1. The state is related to the delinquent as parent to a child.
  2. Wickedness is a mental disease.
  3. Punishment is a moral medicine for wicked acts, and however unpalatable it may be, it is absolutely necessary.

The magistrate thus acts as the physician of the soul and tries to solve its morally sick wrong doer. This may sound very edifying, but how close is the analogy between the working of the medicine and surgery on the body and working of the punishment on the mind and character. Can moral improvement be brought about this way? When we punish, we mean to hurt and cause pain, mental if not physical.

How will this pain and suffering, transform the mental disposition of the man and make him a better individual? On the contrary it may lead him to loose his self respect and stifle his moral aspiration, which would make him a hardened criminal. As one writer says, to propose the punishment and to reform by the same operation, is like treating a man with pneumonia by first stripping him naked and in that condition making him all night stand in the snow and then getting a doctor to administer his cough.

This theory also holds that most of the crimes are due to pathological phenomenon i.e. one commits crime due to some mental deficiency or insanity or physiological defect. Therefore criminal ought to be cured and ought to be reformed. Mental diseases and physiological defects compel the human beings to an offence for eg. A man suffering of homicide impulse has an uncontrollable urge to kill somebody in his mind and this strong desire compels him to stab somebody. Similarly a boy who is not given proper education may indulge in pick-pocketing due to evil company. In all these cases, we see that the cause of committing crime is something other than inner volitional desire. Thus punishment should be to cure a criminal from his mental and physiological defects, or it should be to prevent a criminal from repeating the same crime by giving him proper education and for that prisons should be replaced by mental hospitals and reformatory schools to cure and reform a criminal proper treatment.

Perhaps it is necessary to make a distinction at this stage. Many people speak of the State’s duty of reforming by punishing, which actually means reform as well as punish, for as Bernard Shaw rightly says that two activities together may counteract with each other. To quote him, “if you are to punish a man retributively, you must injure him.’’ If you are to reform him, then you should improve him. And men are not improved by injuries.

Well, then how punishment is supposed to reform? There are two extreme views, which can be rejected immediately.

  1. ‘Beat it out of the person.’ This model seems to be a lion tamer with a whip. This type of punishment doe not eradicate evil habits, it only drives them underground.
  2. Suffering is supposed to have a moral value; it brings soul under good influence. This view cam also cannot be accepted. For suffering does not automatically reform or educate, often it tends to be demoralize.

At the most, punishments induce fear and that cannot reform a person. Man cannot be frightened out of badness into good. No doubt, we are obliged to punish something, but that cannot make a person a better individual.

That explains Dr. Ewing’s famous paradox, “if it is punishment that reforms, then a man is not reformed and if a man is reformed then it is without punishment”. This mean true reformation means a change heart, and punishment cannot bring the change. It can only induce fear and that is non moral motive. As long as there is punishment, a man may desist from committing crimes; overtly it can never reform him or bring about a change in heart. However, Dr. Ewing feels that punishment is the sense of “the beating down of the evil” will by pain is an essential stage in reformation.

Under what circumstances, can punishment reform in the real sense of the term? According to Sir Walter Moberly:

  1. There must be some response from the person punished. If the process only inflicts pain, there can be no reformation. The wrong doer’s conscience should be aroused in some sense.
  2. He himself has to realize that he has transgressed a moral standard. The court’s verdict of guilty must be ratified by his own conscience.
  3. Punishment must be imposed by an authority, which he respects. The person punished therefore feels bound by the judgment of authority. When this condition is absent the intended moral effect of the punishment is destroyed. This happens in the case of hard hearted criminals who do not accept any authority. It also happens in case of those who accept some other authority or who are convinced that they are killing for a cause.

Thus if the punishment needs to have full meaning, the offender must have some kind of conscience, some latent sense of guilt and some respect for the authority (court) that punished him i.e. if punishment is to reform, it must enable the offender to see the offence, the way that society sees it. As Kant puts it, “however benevolent the purpose of given punishment may be yet it must first be justified in itself as punishment and the person punished must admit the justice was done to him and that is his reward for perfectly suitable to his conduct. In every punishment it must first be retributive, if it is to become reformatory”.

The wrongdoer must regard his punishment as just a reward of his deeds. His reformation begins with accepting the verdict of a righteous authority. The criminal must realize that the society is morally bound to push him. As T H Green puts in “he sees that the punishment is his own act returning on himself, in the sense, that it is necessary outcome of his act in society governed by the conception rights, a conception which he appreciates and to which he does involuntary reverence”.

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