A civilised democratic society prides itself on its observation of the Rule of Law. Breach of the law will be punished in a proportionate and fair manner. Punishments inflicted on the offenders by the state aim, first and foremost, to penalise the offender, in the hope that, in the case of a custodial sentence, the danger to society of the individual reoffending will be removed; and concurrently, to act as a deterrent both to the individual offender, and to other members of society. In the USA, for example, two million citizens are incarcerated, while two or more criminal offenders are put to death each week. As Garland notes, contemporary society accepts and lives with this situation, but it can be seen as an effective deterrent to prospective criminals that the state has the power (in that jurisdiction) to end the offender’s life.
An example of a radical development in penal theory has been the decline of the so-called ‘rehabilitative ideal’. This has essentially seen a replacement of the conventional aim of penal systems to rehabilitate the offenders, thereby combating crime. This can be seen in the manner of sentences that are commonly given out, and the decline of rehabilitative programmes in prisons for all but the most troublesome convicts. This ideal has recently been replaced by a return of retributive and ‘harsh’ punishments. These went out of fashion for a large part of the last century, but have enjoyed a renaissance. This can perhaps be seen as the most controversial function of state punishment, as explicitly punitive sentences have angered liberal theorists. While this is, of course, most manifest in those states of the USA that maintain the death sentence, similarly harsh punishments have angered many this side of the Atlantic.