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Rand Excerpt: On Crime and Punishment

The following excerpt is from a letter to John Hospers dated April 29, 1961, in Letters of Ayn Rand, pp. 558-560:

I am glad that you agree with me on the issue of justice vs. mercy. It is an enormously important principle that embraces all of one's relationships with men: private, personal, public, social and political. But you say that you are not clear on what I would regard as the deserved, in specific cases. My answer is: the basic principle that should guide one's judgment in issues of justice is the law of causality: one should never attempt to evade or break the connection between cause and effect -- one should never attempt to deprive a man of the consequences of his actions, good or evil. [...]

But you ask me what is the punishment deserved by criminal actions. This is a technical, legal issue, which has to be answered by the philosophy of law. The law has to be guided by moral principles, but their application to specific cases is a special field of study. I can only indicate in a general way what principles should be the base of legal justice in determining punishments. The law should: a. correct the consequences of the crime in regard to the victim, whenever possible (such as recovering stolen property and returning it to the owner); b. impose restraints on the criminal, such as a jail sentence, not in order to reform him, but in order to make him bear the painful consequences of his action (or their equivalent) which he inflicted on his victims; c. make the punishment proportionate to the crime in the full context of all the legally punishable crimes.

This last point, I believe, is the question you are specifically interested in, when you write: "I find it difficult to say whether a man who has committed, e.g., armed robbery, deserves one year in jail, five years, ten years, or psychiatric therapy to keep him from repeating his offense." The principle of justice on which the answer has to be based is contextual: the severity of the punishment must match the gravity of the crime, in the full context of the penal code. The punishment for pickpocketing cannot be the same as for murder; the punishment for murder cannot be the same as for manslaughter, etc. It is an enormously complex issue, in which one must integrate the whole scale of legally defined crimes and mitigating circumstances, on the one hand -- with a proportionately scaled series of punishments, on the other. Thus the punishment deserved by armed robbery would depend on its place in the scale which begins with the lightest misdemeanor and ends with murder.

What punishment is deserved by the two extremes of the scale is open to disagreement and discussion -- but the principle by which a specific argument has to be guided is retribution, not reform. The issue of attempting to "reform" criminals is an entirely separate issue and a highly dubious one, even in the case of juvenile delinquents. At best, it might be a carefully limited adjunct of the penal code (and I doubt even that), not its primary, determining factor. When I say "retribution," I mean the point above, namely: the imposition of painful consequences proportionate to the injury caused by the criminal act. The purpose of the law is not to prevent a future offense, but to punish the one actually committed. If there were a proved, demonstrated, scientific, objectively certain way of preventing future crimes (which does not exist), it would not justify the idea that the law should prevent future offenses and let the present one go unpunished. It would still be necessary to punish the actual crime.

All emphasis was in the original. Omissions from the text are shown with bracketed ellipses. All other punctuation and spelling is from the original.


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