Question: Write a detailed note on various theories of punishment.

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Punishment refers to the infliction of penalty, castigation by the judicial arm of the state. The various theories of the punishment are discussed below:


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Theories of punishment

1.      Deterrent Theory

The term ‘deter’ is of Latin origin, which signify the expression of to prevent, to discourage or to frighten someone.

This theory believes that all persons, before committing crime makes a rational choice to do or not to do certain acts. Therefore, if the fear of punishment overrides the expected benefit which they can derived from such commission, they will not do that act.

It further can be classified into:

I.                     General deterrence, and

II.                   Specific deterrence.


Criticism of the theory

1.                   It assumes that human beings are rational actors, who adjudged the consequences of their act before deciding to commit the crime, however, this is often not the case. Lack of proper awareness about the prevailing laws serves as major reason behind that.

2.                   Sometimes, because of severity and cruelty of the punishment, society starts treating a criminal as a victim.


2.      Preventive theory

This theory believes to prevent or disable a person before committing or repeating the crime.

This theory does not act so much on the motive of the wrongdoer but disables his physical power to commit the offence. The supporters of this theory recognize imprisonment as the best mode of punishment.



1.                   Preventive detention may have adverse effect on first offenders or the juveniles, as they will be put together with the hard-core criminals.

2.                   Sometimes, by mistake, an innocent person can also be punished, on the basis of an assumption that he may commit crime in future.


3.      Retributive Theory

Retributive theory is based on famous principle 'an eye for an eye', 'a tooth for a tooth'. It is also known as theory of vengeance.

This theory states that a criminal should be given the same punishment, as he has inflected on others. He should be treated in the same manner, as he had treated to the others.


Criticism of this theory

1.                   There is a famous saying, “Revenge is wild justice.”

2.                   Pardon and mercy have no places under retributive theory.

3.                   Punishment in itself is an evil, new evil cannot be a remedy for an old evil.


4.      Reformative theory

Reformative theory is also known as rehabilitative theory. The theory is based on the principle that no one is a born criminal in our society. There are various reasons like environment, circumstance, personal issues, sudden provocation etc. which abet someone to commit crime. Therefore, the offender should only be punished after taking account of his age, education, surroundings, mindset, intention, previous record etc. Moreover, it should also be taken into the consideration that he will going to out from the prison one day, so the duration of his punishment should be utilized in teaching some morals or any other skills which can help him out after his release, so that he can restart his normal life instantly.


Criticism of the theory

1.                   If prisons would be turned into comfortable dwelling places, where the criminals are to be sent to be transformed into good citizens by physical, intellectual and moral training, the cost of rehabilitation will become burden to the government.

2.                   the victims won't get any justice, which ultimately may lead to another crime, if they react with the intent to revenge.

3.                   It will end the fear of punishment from the mind of the criminals.


5.      Compensatory theory

This theory states that the compensation for the victim must be the primary objective of any criminal system. The theory is mostly applicable to civil justice than the criminal justice.


Criticism of this theory

1.                   The economic position of the offender plays a major role in this theory. If the offender is poor, he/she have no source to pay compensation, if the offender is rich the payment of compensation has no impact on him.

2.                   it oversimplifies the motive of the crime and increases recidivism.

3.                   Cannot be fully applicable on penal statutes.


6.      Expiatory theory

According to this theory, repentance and expiration by the offender itself is a punishment. The prisoner or an offender were kept in an isolated cell to repent and expiate his crime. If he realizes his crime, he should be granted mercy.


Criticism of this theory

1.                   It is not practical in this modern and materialistic society.

2.                   It is impossible to get inside someone’s mind, to know whether they realized their crime or not.


Also read:

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  3. Difference Between Contract of Indemnity and Guarantee (Contract Law)
  4. Difference Between Judicial Separation and Divorce (Hindu Law)
  5. Question: “Article 14 permits classification but prohibits class legislation”. Discuss.


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