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Cover Introducing Political Philosophy

11. Prison Sentences and Punishment  

William Abel, Elizabeth Kahn, Tom Parr, and Andrew Walton

This chapter assesses whether the state should shorten the length of prison sentences, exploring the justification for state punishment. It argues in favour of shorter prison sentences, drawing on the idea that an individual who commits a crime has a remedial duty to those they have wronged, and that one way to discharge this duty is by spending time in prison in order to deter future crime. This justification for punishment supports shorter prison sentences because the beneficial effect of longer prison sentences on crime rates is too low to justify the burdens they impose. The chapter then considers a retributivist objection, which claims that the state should favour longer prison sentences because an individual who commits a crime deserves to suffer. Concerns about retribution are unable to justify the high costs of the prison system and, more fundamentally, they provide an unattractive justification for all forms of punishment. The chapter also discusses the appeal and relevance of a communicative account of punishment, according to which the state should punish an individual who commits a crime in order to condemn their actions.