Is Crime Caused by Illness, Immorality, or Injustice? Theories of Punishment in the Twentieth and Early Twenty-First Centuries

In Matthew C. Altman (ed.), The Palgrave Handbook on the Philosophy of Punishment. Palgrave-Macmillan. pp. 75-97 (2022)
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Since 1900, debates about the justification of punishment have also been debates about the cause of crime. In the early twentieth century, the rehabilitative ideal of punishment viewed mental illness and dysfunction in individuals as the cause of crime. Starting in the 1970s, retributivism identified the immorality of human agents as the source of crime, which dovetailed well with the “tough-on-crime” political milieu of the 1980s and 1990s that produced mass incarceration. After surveying these historical trends, Wirts argues for a social critical view that crime is best understood as a product of an unjust society, not faulty human beings. This view should take the lessons learned by the critiques of rehabilitation, however, and resist the tendency to reduce human beings to recipients of social services.

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Amelia M. Wirts
University of Washington


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