The Public Interest

The Rehabilitation of Punishment

Marc F. Plattner

Summer 1976

A remarkable turnabout has recently occurred in the perennial debate about how America should deal with its convicted criminals.  For over a century,, American penology had subscribed to the rehabilitative ideal and its practical concomitant, the indeterminate sentence, which tailors the length of a convict’s prison term to his prospects for and progress toward the “cure” of his criminal tendencies.  From 1870 through the 1960’s, this position represented the “enlightened” view, and reformers strove, with considerable success, to have it embodied in public policy. Then, suddenly, the tide of advanced opinion on this matter began to turn. There emerged a wave of skepticism, and even hostility, toward the theory and practice of prisons that were based upon the rehabilitative ideal, and a wave of concern about the unfairness that characterizes a system of indeterminate sentencing. This assault upon the received doctrine has rapidly been gaining support from all parts of the political spectrum, culminating this year in a host of books, articles, and reports advocating the abandonment of the indeterminate sentence and of rehabilitation as the justification for imprisonment.  Politicians as diverse in their views as President Ford and Senator Kennedy have endorsed a return to determinate sentencing, and several state legislatures seem to be moving in this direction.

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