I think there are 3 main arguments for the imprisonment of criminals:

A) criminals can be locked away for a temporary or indefinite amount of time so they cannot commit another crime again

B) criminals in jail get reeducated, realize what they did was wrong and hopefully will not do it again

C) criminals in jail get punished for the crime, which in turn makes them and everyone else stay away from crime because they do not want to be subject to that kind of punishment.

And of course a person can agree to more than one of these arguments, especially since they are all interwoven. I would like to focus on people who are only supporting A and B, but not jail for the sake of punishment.

If there is a crime that can only be committed once, would people who do not support C make the criminal go to jail regardless of the reasoning behind A and B? Let's say a country has a monument and that monument has its own law against vandalism. The monument will not be rebuilt, meaning this law only covers the first person or group destroying the monument which in turn means that this law will be voided as soon as such event takes place.

Would you have to make the criminal go to jail under the reasoning of A and B?

(A) The criminal has never committed a crime before, he is not likely to cause further harm that could be prevented by locking them up.

(B) Teaching the criminal not to do that again is useless effort as this crime cannot be committed again.

The only real reason I can see them going to jail for is point (C) but some people are against this point.

To be fair this whole scenario is of very artificial nature but this thought experiment had me puzzled for the past hour

  • 2
    Any crime can only be committed once, if you murder someone you can not murder them again. And your versions of A and B are too naive. Human psychology works so that after a barrier is broken once it becomes easier to break it again. With a similar crime, or a different one of comparable severity, or even more severe. Impunity is addictive by itself, and the slope is slippery, humans tend to escalate and not just with crimes. So something has to be done to reinstate the deterrent regardless of crime's nature. Jail may or may not work, but doing nothing definitely won't. – Conifold Sep 5 '20 at 14:25
  • A prison doctor observed that his patients who committed violent crimes, left prison, and shoplifted -- invariably committed another violent crime. Only the ones who refrained from petty crimes would stop. – Mary Sep 5 '20 at 15:55

Punishment is logically (1) a penalty (fine, imprisonment, community service, &c.) (2) of an offender (3) for an offence, a crime committed. There is also (4) a requirement that the penalty be imposed by human agency - some natural diaster befalling the offender does not count as punishment - and (5) that the penalty be imposed by an authority of some kind, personal or institutional.

That the crime 'physically cannot be committed again', makes no difference: punishment occurs when conditions (1) - (5) are met. Punishment is for an offence, a crime, regardless of whether the crime can be committed again.

A reformative theory of punishment would still apply to the case you describe. There is punishment because the crime has been committed and the aim of reform would be to prevent the criminal from engaging in similar crimes or to discourage her/ him from law-breaking in future.

Reformation (successful or otherwise) of the offender does not replace punishment here; it is the aim of punishment or an accompaniment to punishment. Reform is punishment plus.


A. Flew, 'The Justification of Punishment', A Philosophy of Punishment, ed. H.B. Acton, London: Macmillan, 1969: 83-104.


When talking about statues - I will assume, you are talking about the current situation in the world about some people removing statues what have deep values to one side, but none to the others, because they don't come from the same environment and rooting. - That context is highly important in establishing punishment to avoid public unrest and decent, there people take matters in their own hands to get justice served. A punishment must not only make the guilty realize their deed was wrong, but reconcile him with the society, so it could see, the crime got punished. That is the reason, we lock people away. For this reason a law about the protection of a statue, cannot simply be voided, because it would cause disdain about your values not being regarded enough and being unpersoned. For instance, when Estonia had its Bronze-night for simply wanting to examine a controversial war statue under a tent, so the scientists could work, it was more than enough to cause civil unrest, what resulted in the destruction of public property. There is a debate upon foreign agencies conducting these, but on this question its rather irrelevant.

Perhaps you should also put in various ways how debate can be established about protecting a statue or have it removed into a more safer appropriate location such as a museum etc.


There are other reasons advanced for penalising criminals, for example moral retribution and atonement, but we can let that pass here.

Almost all such reasons apply not just to the specific incident but to the principles underlying the motivation for the criminal act. If somebody has seen fit to take the law into their own hands, such as destroying somebody else's property, it is simply not acceptable to say "OK, the thing is done, your motives are no longer relevant." Society needs to ensure that the criminal understands that similar criminal acts based on similar motives will remain unacceptable in the future. Reform is as much an option for that assurance process as is deterrence, and it is obviously a more humane one.

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