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Against punishment for punishment's sake

Zachary Stein is a 24-year-old lifeguard whose negligence nearly cost the life of a 5-year-old boy when the boy narrowly escaped drowning in a Chelsea Piers pool.

Thankfully, the boy escaped unharmed after Stein belatedly rescued him. Both Stein and the boy's family support Stein's entry into a probation program, which allows him to avoid jail time or other punishment in exchange for Stein agreeing to refrain from serving as a lifeguard for the probationary period. So, why does Stamford State's Attorney Richard Colangelo oppose a resolution that the victim's family itself supports?

Or, to restate the question, what societal purpose is served by further punishing (and possibly imprisoning; it's unclear what punishment Colangelo prefers) Stein?

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In criminal law, we talk about three main theories, or justifications, for punishing wrongdoers.

First, is the deterrence theory of justice. Stated simply, punishments should exist for crimes to deter individuals from committing the crimes in the first place.

Second, is the rehabilitative theory of justice. This theory imposes restrictions or even imprisonment upon wrongdoers to prevent them from committing similar crimes again.

Third, is the retributive theory of justice. Retribution theories impose suffering on wrongdoers to promote social cohesion by providing victims of crimes reassurance that criminals have to pay for their crimes. "An eye for an eye," to quote the familiar Bible passage.

Here, Stein has already agreed to refrain from being a lifeguard. So, rehabilitation has already been served. Further, the family agreed with the sentence imposed by the judge, so the retributive theory has also been satisfied. And finally, I think it's difficult to believe that other lifeguards would be more diligent in their duties as lifeguard if Stein is imprisoned (as opposed to merely put on probation). So no deterrence purposes would be served by further punishing Stein.

"I'm in the business of doing justice," said Colangelo. But no justice would be served from further punishing Stein. Do we really want to lock 24-year-olds up for poor lifeguarding?