Punishment and human dignity: Sentencing principles for twenty-first-century America

Michael Tonry

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


A new conception of justice in punishment is needed that is premised on respect for offenders’ human dignity. It needs to acknowledge retributive and utilitarian values and incorporate independently important values of fairness and equal treatment. Punishment principles, policies, and practices lined up nicely in mid-twentieth-century America. Utilitarian principles implied a primary goal of crime prevention through rehabilitation and avoidance of unnecessary suffering by offenders. Judges and parole boards were empowered to tailor decisions to fit offenders’ circumstances and interests. Corrections officials sought to address rehabilitative needs and facilitate achievement of successful, law-abiding lives. The system often did not work as it should, but its ideals, aspirations, and aims were clear. In our time, there are no commonly shared principles; sentencing laws and practices are unprecedentedly rigid and severe; judges and parole boards often lack authority to make sensible or just decisions; corrections officials are expected simultaneously to act as police officers, actuaries, and social workers; and injustice is ubiquitous.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)119-157
Number of pages39
JournalCrime and Justice
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2018

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