Reflections on Penology: Retribution Revisited

Document Type


Publication Date



This article points to the recent controversy surrounding the devaluation of prison rehabilitation as an effective correctional approach, notes the varied reactions of criminologists to this dilemma, and suggests that contemporary penal planning should be calculated on the basis of not only what should be, but also on what historical experience suggests is attainable. In approaching the “lessons” of penal history, the authors state that three general stages of development have characterized the evolution of penology: The Age of Retribution, the Age of the Penitentiary, and the modem Age of Corrections. The authors further suggest that each succeeding stage has emerged as a result of deficiencies in its predecessor, that the passage of time has not necessarily brought improvement, and that criminological thought has been hampered, to some extent, by an imbalance between social and legal theory since the appearance of the late 18th-century classicists. Finally, the authors summarize the tenets of positive criminology, question the assumption that the social rehabilitation of the individual offender should and can take precedence over the legal demand for retributive punishment, and outline the role of retributive punishment in human development. The authors conclude by calling for: (1) a reassessment of the fundamental assumptions of modem criminological thought;(2) an awareness that the stages of development in criminological thought and penology have been mere stages of development and not necessary installments of “progress;” (3) a critical review of penal planning which depends on the existence of “an enlightened public conscience;” and (4) the formulation of an attainable correctional policy which includes balanced correctional planning based on what has been and what is, as well as what ought to be.