just deserts | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Introduction / Criminal Law

Just deserts is a principle of punishment in the criminal justice system that seeks to assign a punishment that is proportionate to the severity of the crime committed in order to promote fairness, accountability, and deterrence.

In the world of criminal justice, just deserts is a principle we can’t ignore. Above all, it maintains that people should get what they deserve. If you commit a crime, then you should face a penalty that matches your wrongdoing.

It’s like if you cheated on a test and then received a failing grade. The failing grade would be your “just deserts” for cheating. Similarly, in the criminal justice system, a person who steals might get a prison sentence. That’s their just deserts.

History and Significance

The just deserts idea has a rich history. It is deeply rooted in ancient beliefs about justice and fairness. After all, many societies have agreed that punishment should fit the crime.

In today’s criminal justice system, the just deserts principle is a guide for judges and lawmakers. Afterward, when they are deciding on penalties for crimes, they often ask, “What does this person deserve?” This question is a central part of the just deserts approach.

But remember, it’s not only about punishment. It’s also about fairness and balance. The goal is not to be overly harsh or lenient. Instead, it’s about making sure the punishment fits the crime.

Importance of Proportionality in Just Deserts

A critical term in this context is proportionality. This means that the punishment should be proportional, or equal, to the crime committed. For example, a person who commits a minor crime should not receive the same punishment as someone who commits a major one.

Proportionality is important because it helps ensure fairness. Without it, we could have situations where minor crimes are punished too harshly or serious crimes are not punished enough. Neither situation would be just.

Just Deserts and Rehabilitation

While the just deserts model focuses on punishment, it doesn’t ignore rehabilitation. After all, the goal of the criminal justice system is to prevent future crime. Therefore, punishments often include opportunities for offenders to change their behavior and become law-abiding citizens.

All in all, just deserts is about getting what you deserve. In the criminal justice system, this means the right punishment for the crime. It’s a principle that helps ensure fairness and justice. Therefore, understanding it can help us better appreciate how our criminal justice system strives to maintain balance and fairness.

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Last Modified: 06/12/2023

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