The purpose of punishment

prison-islamists-2Why do we punish people for crimes? There are mixed rational and emotional reasons. It gives satisfaction to victims and their families. It can have a rehabilitative effect on criminals. When all else fails, at least we know that people who are locked up are not reoffending while they are in prison (or at least not against the general population). But one fundamental reason, surely, is deterrence. If there are consequences then, yes, it signals our disapproval, but it may also deter people from committing crimes.

We assume that people are, at least partly, rational. If there is a negative consequence to committing a crime – or, we should acknowledge, potential consequence, as not all criminals are convicted – it will be one factor in persuading people to refrain from crime. This is, perhaps, one reason why we exert harsher penalties for premeditated crimes. Deterrence is more likely to be effective in this case than in crimes committed in the heat of passion. 

But if we assume that penalties have an effect on people’s behavior, we should ask ourselves what the effect is of maintaining a sex offenders’ register. It wasn’t originally adopted with deterrence in mind, but as a means of protecting potential victims. If parents know that a previously convicted sex offender lives in the area, it may lead to their taking more precautions. But the register has a punitive effect as well. 

Among other things, being on the register will have a cumulative cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Going to prison costs you whatever job you had at the time, or might have secured during your incarceration, and makes it harder to find a new job on release, but being on the register goes much further. It automatically rules you out for a great many jobs and makes it almost impossible to get most others as well. 

It also, presumably, makes it harder for a registered offender to find a romantic relationship. Who would want to date someone on the sex offenders’ register? All this is part of the purpose. No-one wants to hire or date someone in ignorance of the fact that that person is a sex offender either. Making the information public protects people from this. 

This may add to the deterrence. It can also undermine rehabilitation. It makes the cost of being a sex offender higher, very often, than the cost of being a murderer. In both cases, the offender is eventually released from prison, but the ongoing restrictions on the life of the sex offender are greater. But if the offender cannot find a job or develop romantic ties, it makes it more likely that he (and most sex offenders are ‘he’) will reoffend. There is no opportunity to build a new life.

And for the convicted offender, the register provides no deterrence at all. Being on the register is what economists call a “sunk cost”. A first time offender might be deterred by the thought of being on the register, but someone who is already on the register has nothing further to fear. 

Different states adopted registers and made them public at different times. It should therefore be possible to measure any effect of the policy. The answer seems to be that there was no effect at all on levels of offending. Perhaps the only effect is increase people’s groundless fears.

qlQuentin Langley is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Bedfordshire Business School as well as a freelance columnist published in the UK and all parts of the US. He blogs on social media and crisis communications at

%d bloggers like this: