Criminal Sentencing: Retribution or Redemption?

by Lawrence T. Jablecki

jablecki1Fourteen men, ages 30’s-60’s, clad in white, incarcerated behind steel bars for crimes of violence, from 10-30 years, seated in a classroom discussing crime and punishment. When asked if they were willing to discuss the impact of their crime and incarceration on their families, their collective reply was “sure, doing time has made us tough.” Almost immediately, the room was transformed into the silence of a chapel as the teacher asked them one by one to share their stories. Two hours passed in a flash during which most of those tough guys were choked with emotion, had tears in their eyes, and a few cried with no shame. The emotional intensity in the room was an indescribable experience.


The above event took place two weeks ago in a Texas prison and for this writer who has taught university classes to prison inmates for 20 years, it was a totally unique and unforgettable experience. And it is a real life confirmation of the reasons why Changing Lives Through Literature co-director Bob Waxler can feel genuine compassion for the fictional character of Cholly Breedlove in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. Waxler is an incorrigible idealist and I am proud to be one of his friends. The fact and depth of his idealism are eloquently stated in his recent post “Prisons are Built with Stones of Law. He tells us that a few of the judges who read Cholly’s story are compelled “… to see from a new perspective offenders appearing before their bench. Each offender has a richly complex story….It makes judgment difficult, raises questions about the perplexing relationship between mercy and justice, compassion and judgment.”

The tragic reality, however, is that the vast majority of judges who preside over our Federal and State criminal justice systems lack the temperament and training to engage in this type of reflection. They administer systems with penal codes which give priority to retribution, i.e., offenders must receive their ‘just deserts.’ The belief that many offenders who are sentenced to prison, including many for violent crimes, could find redemption in local communities under the rubric of Restorative Justice, is still widely viewed like an alien from another planet.

In 1991, when Waxler and Kane created Changing Lives Through Literature, they certainly knew that it was an unconventional alternative to prison. I am persuaded, however, that they did not realize the extent to which it is a radical and frontal assault on the crime control policies which have been in the driver’s seat in this country for the last 30 years. They were insurgents who planted the seeds of a much needed revolution in American criminal justice. I am very proud of the fact that I joined the revolutionary forces in 1996.




Dr. Lawrence T. Jablecki is the former director of the Brazoria County Community Supervision and Corrections Department in Angleton, Texas and currently teaches in the Sociology Department at Rice University. He co-founded the Texas chapter of Changing Lives Through Literature in 1997 with Judge Robert E. May.


15 thoughts on “Criminal Sentencing: Retribution or Redemption?

  1. Keep the revolution alive, Larry!! Change is on the horizon. And it might just come from the philosophers and the poets this time!

  2. Thank you for the thoughtful and thought provoking post. I think that concepts in corrections should be laid to rest: retribution and rehabilitation. You simply can’t “pay for your crime.” Especially in violent crimes or even personal property crimes, we cannot extract a price from an inmate. Seeing corrections as some type of transaction where we place a value on the crime and then make the inmate “pay” that price leaves everyone unsatisfied. Transactional corrections is simply unworkable. Rehabilitation is also a nearly impossible task because rehabilitation denotes an external force making change. I have never seen an external force change anyone. Again, in my opinion, that leaves us with two possibilities: incapacitation and redemption.

    Some people must be removed from society. For whatever reason they don’t (or can’t) play by the rules and they are dangerous. This isn’t retribution, this is a matter of safety. Moreover, by realizing that we are segregating an individual from society we must recognize our responsibility to care for them. It isn’t a matter of treating them harshly (retribution drives us to want conditions to be uncomfortable), it is a matter of keeping the safely segregated.

    Redemption differs significantly from retribution in that redemption is an internal drive to change. Only an individual can redeem themselves. While it is a good start for an inmate to recognize the impact of their crime and even to have an emotional response, this is only the first step on the path to redemption. Innate to redemption is contrition. And, contrition involves meaningful acts. It is incumbent that you demonstrate you have redeemed yourself. Unfortunately, as the broom of change swept away rehabilitation in prisons, it also swept away most opportunities for redemption. I would label the four most important acts of redemption: 1) work 2) self-improvement 3) altruism 4) community interaction. Well, I think I am beginning to layout Restorative Justice.

    Enough from me – good post.

  3. Lawrence,
    If only the revolution you speak of has really happened. For now, it seems the dominant mood, at least in America, is punishment for punishment’s sake. While the EU refuses to admit any country with a death penalty, your state, Texas, has executed more people than all other states combined. California has a “three strikes, your out” policy. Maybe we will see a change under Obama, but whatever he may personally believe, he has not yet shown the courage to completely reject the dominant paradigm. He is keeping Gates as Secretary of Offense and will not even publicly oppose the death penalty. What Obama does may ultimately be decided by the movements on the street to which he must account- are the movements of the left or the right more powerful? We need to agitate for programs like CLTL to replace the punitive legal code, while we challenge the legitimacy of the entire legal syste.

  4. Yale:
    I agree with everything you say! For starters, I was raised in Kansas City, Mo., but married a Texan. Lived here since 1976 and during my full-time career in criminal justice became known in Texas as a real agitator. Hired a parolee as an adult probation officer, lecture against the death penalty at Rice University and in 1997 started the CLTL in Brazoria County which is still the only place in Texas with the program. The only hope for a genuine reform of our CJ systems, both federal and state, is the emergence of a consensus to force policy makers to embrace the concept of Restorative Justice. There are too many folks rushing to judgment on Obama. Only time will tell if he has the courage of his convictions. Many of us will know much when he appoints the next drug czar.

  5. We’ll know when “he appoints the next drug czar,” you say. I think we can certainly read a lot from such choices–but I wonder exactly what you re thinking here, Larry. There are too many people in prison for drug possession, no doubt–but what can we anticipate from a “drug czar”? I think about drugs as primarily a “medical” issue, not a “criminal” issue–and believe that we need a lot more money for scientific research and rehab. Can we hope for a drug czar who takes that perspective? I hope so. What do you think?

  6. On October 29th, I was invited to make a presentation at a drug policy conference at the Baker Institute of Rice University.
    My concluding remarks were a recommendation that the next President convene a crime commission with some specific marching orders. The war on drugs must be de-criminalized and all federal drug laws re-written under the umbrella of public health and safety instead of criminal justice. The United States is now a rogue nation which incarcerates a greater percentage of its population than any other country. Many of us have communicated with Obama’s transition team that this must be done and his choice of the new drug czar must be willing to fight for these changes. If anyone is interested, I will send you the full text of my presentation. Contact me at

  7. It is much to early to judge Obama – I agree with the other commenter. This is an important time for American and frankly, there are more problems that we can handle. The economy has to come first so my guess is that many other issues will be put on the “back burner”.

    Being from Texas, it seems that we are always in the news on criminal law issues.

  8. It was good to hear from my colleague ( of some years ago) Larry. I have nothing but respect for the work he has done for many years now, very akin to the “Changing Lives” model. Larry was a pioneer in this approach when others scoffed at the idea.

    I would add one observation, however, that goes to a myopia, or a kind of denial, that restorative justice propoents can be prone to – something I see evidence of in Larry’s piece. He talks of ” the crime control policies of the last thirtty years” in what is clearly a dismissive tone. I understand some of that, particularly as it applies to drug policy and the treatment of drug offenders which, for my money, is the single greatest policy error of recent times. But with respect to any blanket indictment of what has occurred in recent times, how do we reconcile that what have been wholly unanticipated and clearly dramatic drops in serious crime across the country in the last decade or so? ( New York is my favorite example.) Could declines of these magnitudes have occurred if crime policy was so totally wrongheaded?

    My own view is that a rational discussion of future crime policy must make room for the wonderfully radical approach of CLTL while also fairly and responsibly acknowledging what too many want to ignore – i.e., the success of at least some police and correctional startegies in producing favorable, overall, trends lines in serious crime in America since the mid-1990’s.

    As the person after whom the building I work in was named, John Adams, said: “Facts are stubborn things.”

  9. Ron:
    You know as well as I do, that no major scholar in the area of criminal justice denies the stubborn fact that the prison boom of the last thirty years has helped to reduce the crime rate in many places. The disputed issue is, how much! I think John Q. Wilson, George Will and others of the same persuasion who argue, “more prisons, less crime”, are wrong and that their views have contributed to the stubborn fact of our international notoriety as the nation with mass incarceration. I think that Michael Tonry, Bruce Western and Todd Clear are the representative of the most enlightened perspective on this issue. Great to hear from you. Send me your e-mail.

  10. Mr. Jablecki:

    I think you are trying to address some very complex and serious problems in a rather simplistic manner. I don’t know who John Q. Wilson is, but I do know the eminent scholar James Q. Wilson. Assuming that is who your are referencing, you missed the boat there as well.

  11. Dear Critical Observer:
    Thank you for pointing out my egregious error. I failed to edit my remarks. During my 30 year career in criminal justice I have been criticized by judges, prosecutors,
    defense counsel, victims, the media and some of my employees. None accused me of being “simplistic.” Your comments are a cheap shot with no substance.

  12. Critical Observer:

    We certainly welcome comments which express opinions contrary to the entries we feature on this site, but encourage you (and others) to voice your own perspectives in more detail. Short remarks without explanation or qualification do little to facilitate dialogue among our community members. If you would like to go into more detail about how your own thoughts differ from that of our author, I am sure that Mr. Jablecki would be happy to respond in kind.

  13. I think that it’s interesting that the definition of certain crimes changes from country to country. American drug policy and imprisonment is shockingly different from Canada and Europe. English is becoming a lingua franca, and yet the definition of crime and its punishments has different meanings depending on territorial boundaries. I like this idea that rather than a semantic system of capitalist metaphors, criminal policy be better though of in terms of public health and safety. Retribution certainly ought to be laid to rest, as it has been in other countries.

    Although we graft various motivations on criminals, the facts remain that offenders come from sociographic backgrounds that are far different from the general population. Canada is a prime example: 50% of our prisoners are Aboriginal while this demographic makes up only 3% of our population. But these aren’t percentages and populations, these are individuals from populations that have faced shocking challenges. There appears to be a public tendency to discuss crime, offenders, and punishment as terms with set definitions, and yet these definitions are various and misleading.

    Lawrence, thank you for your insightful post.

  14. Pingback: Reformative Literature: To What End? « Changing Lives, Changing Minds: A Changing Lives Through Literature Blog

  15. do, you think one will learn to be good in prision,when the prision is filled with crime as well, I hear in the news the official prevent the majority of the how can we beat crimes.we see more of it every day in houston ,texas and our surrounding..Mr,Bush and Obama ougth to be in form to help redeem our imates and gruard our world. thank you ..sir.

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