What is Retributive Justice?


Most cultures across the world subscribe to the theory of retributive justice that maintains a punishment should fit the crime. This ancient aphorism is evident in the primitive records of man where the retribution for wrongdoings translates into “an eye for an eye.” While this concept is easily understood, ensuring that the sentence fits the crime is a difficult theory when applied to modern-day legal issues. Because there are few laws in existence that guarantee the proportionality of criminal penalties, the reality of the death penalty raises questions regarding the proportionality of American crimes to their punishments.justice

The Case of Capital Punishment

Capital punishment, or a sentence of death for a defendant, is considered to be proportional to certain crimes under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Capital punishment is only considered as punishment for crimes that are so severe, death for the defendant is the only fitting consequence. In order for a court to consider capital punishment in a criminal case, the judge and jury must take aggravating factors into account. These factors are details about the defendant’s actions that demonstrate that the defendant acted in a horrifying manner during the commission of a crime. Such factors can include:

  • A murder was cruel and involved torture
  • A capital offense was committed during a felony act, such as killing a victim during a robbery
  • A murder occurred during a terrorist act such as a planned bombing
  • A defendant used an assault weapon during the crime

Most states require the presence of one or more aggravating factors in a case before the death penalty can be considered as punishment. If a murder case lacks aggravating factors, life in prison may be a more fitting punishment for anyone who is convicted of murder.

Proportional Punishments for Non-Capital Cases

In non-capital cases, the death penalty is not a consideration for punishment. According to the U.S. Constitution, punishments for non-capital crimes must not allow excessive bail or fines nor render a cruel or unusual punishment. However, it does not establish guidelines for disproportionate punishment.

Each non-capital case is evaluated for an appropriate punishment. While it is rare for a sentence to be lessened after a ruling, a court will consider the following factors to determine if a punishment does not fit the crime:

  • The amount of harm caused to the victim in relation to the defendant’s actions
  • Whether the defendant intended to cause harm
  • The defendant’s motive for committing the crime
  • A comparison of the defendant’s punishment against punishments for similar crimes in the jurisdiction

For more information regarding proportional punishments for crimes, please call Mario Madrid and his associates at 713-877-9400.

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