Punishment: The Retributive Option

Punishment is ineffective, expensive and unsupported by research

Research does not support the efficacy of traditional punishment.  There is no evidence that punishment has any long-term positive impact on victims, wrongdoers, or communities. (See why punishment doesn’t work.)  Punishment uses external controls such as hurt, coercion, and humiliation, teaching the offender nothing about community norms for behavior. Punitive behavioral control necessitates an endless high effort feedback loop that is often ineffective.

Traditional punishment can easily backfire.  Punishment causes alienation just when individuals most need guidance and connection so they can be fully accountable. An offender in the contemporary justice system is turned into an adversary with little personal empowerment. Often they do not feel heard and naturally turn against the authority which has been neither just nor caring from their perspective. A strong sense of belonging motivates humans to be community-appropriate, whereas alienation and anger often lead to more harmful behavior, causing more punishment in an endless cycle of retribution.

Punishment is wildly expensive, taking an enormous toll both financially and socially. Sending someone to prison for a year is more costly to taxpayers than a year in school, higher education, vocational training, or receiving various forms of support. Additionally, punishment negatively affects the families of those incarcerated and their larger communities. Use of retributive discipline in schools contributes to the school to prison pipeline, which disproportionately disrupts the learning and lives of students of color.

Despite all this, punishment is usually the strategy of first resort for resolving conflict or righting wrong-doing.  In the case of children, punishment often takes the form of removal — from the classroom, school, or community.  However, children cannot learn community-appropriate behavior when pushed out of the community. Instead, they must be held accountable for their behavior and the harm they caused to another individual and/or the larger community in an intentional and productive way. Restoration takes more time on the front end, getting to the root of the problem before rashly assigning consequences, but once an individual understands the communal norms and finds the internal motivation to follow them,  the problem has been sustainably solved. The situation is restored.

Traditional punishment focuses on these questions:
What rule or law was broken? 
Who broke it?
What punishment is deserved?

Restorative practices focuses on these questions:
What harm has been done and to whom?
What needs to be done to repair the harm?
Who is responsible for repairing the harm?


Restoration aims for the best solution for everyone involved, with the essential goal of bringing peace and connection back to the community.