ABSTRACT

R E T R I B U T I O N appears to be the primary basis of support for the death penalty in the United States.1 In a 2014 national opinion survey, 49 percent of respondents chose retribution, that is, “An eye for an eye/They took a life/Fits the crime” (35 percent) or “They deserve it” (14 percent) as their primary reason for supporting the death penalty.2 The second most important reason for supporting the death penalty after retribution was cost: “Save taxpayers money/Cost associated with prison” (14 percent).3 Law professor Joseph Hoffmann claims that the basic principles of retributive justice are now the principal guide by which the Supreme Court evaluates whether the death penalty, either in a single case or in a category of cases, is cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment.4 These developments would have surprised long-time prison warden Lewis Lawes, who, in the 1920s, wrote:

The idea of punishment of any type solely as retribution is gradually disappearing, together with other of the older conceptions and theories of criminology. This idea is yielding to the more modern, progressive and scientific attitude, that retribution, a more euphonious word for revenge, is not justification for any system of punishment nor are its results beneficial. It is repressive, not reformative; it ignores social responsibility and disregards all possibility of individualization.5