American Justice System: Rehabilitate or Punish?

There are two main philosophies regarding crime and corrections: rehabilitation (trying to help reform prisoners so they don’t reoffend) and punishment (giving consequences to those who offend as punishment and also a deterrent against future criminals).  Based on what the book says, would you say the US has historically had a rehabilitative or punitive approach to crime?  Do you see this continuing or changing, based on current issues and trends?  Defend your position with at least 3 historical policies and one current trend. 


Corrections in the United States began with an emphasis on revenge, or punishment. In the 18th century, if individuals did not abide by the law, they were publicly subjected to physical and public punishment. However, there were a number of individuals who despite much resistance began the work of reforming the criminal justice system in America.

Regardless of the work done by reformers, historically, the crime and corrections system in the United States has remained focused on punishment. This notion has gone so far as to psychologists creating a stereotypical outline of a criminal and these individuals were punished through involuntarily sterilized as punishment were being deemed “organically inferior” (p. 300). Though the eugenics movement ceased to exist in the 1950s, there are still populations of people today, ethnic and racial minorities, who have historically been deemed inferior by society and they are targeted and pushed into the criminal justice system at disproportionately higher rates than their white counterparts.

With the passage of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act in 1994, policymakers moved further forward in making the United State’s justice system one of punishment by adding more federal crimes to the list of crimes that are admissible to the death penalty. Additionally, the act introduced a “three-strikes” penalty for individuals with high rates of recidivism, which would later be enacted as the Three Strikes Law in 1999.

In 1984, the Comprehensive Crime Control Act was passed, which allowed for crimes to be categorized based on seriousness and then bail conditions and punishments were determined based on the nature of the crime. The goal that intended to be reached by implementing this act was basically to incapacitate as many individuals as possible that were deemed too corrupt to be allowed to live in society.

The United States still seems to have steered clear of any real, efficacious rehabilitation programs for incarcerated individuals. But, why would we? With the increased privatization of prisons, or the prison industrial complex, companies are making a profit off of incarcerating people, so it would not be very economical for incarceration rates to fall. As the book mentions crime rates have fallen, incarceration has not.


Karger, H. J., & Stoesz, D. (2013). American social welfare policy: A pluralist approach (7th ed.). New York: Allyn & Bacon.

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