Durkheim and Modern Punishment

Durkheims views on crime and punishment differed significantly from those of many theorists. According to Durkheim, crime served a social function and opened the way for social reforms and reconciliation.  To Durkheim, crime is indispensable to the normal evolution of morality and law (Jones, 1981).

Many theorists supported harsh laws to punish criminals. Partly because societies were simpler and smaller scale (so that many people shared values, tasks and experiences) than today, a crime would affect a large part of the society and was regarded as an assault on common morality. This attracted harsh punishments on not only the criminals, but also their close friends and family. Bizarre forms of punishment characterized undeveloped and pre-industrial societies and were used as occasions for public ritual (and even entertainment) (Jones, 1981). Repressive forms of punishment including killing, torturing a criminal, family, and friends belonged in the past.

 Durkheim advocated legal codes tailored to help society defend itself from criminal elements and to restore its situation after a crime, and not on punishing the criminals or avenging their crimes. Penal institutions would therefore help in restoration of social solidarity and correction of criminals, and not revenge. To an extent however, passions still play out in the modern court systems where they influence the sentences handed on convicts. People charged with such emotive crimes as terrorism and other crimes which attract much attention receive harsher sentences than those charged with less emotionally-charged yet serious crimes.


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