Embracing Rehabilitation: A Case for Youth Justice

Written by: Sarah Nantongo

In the realm of youth justice, there exists a pivotal debate persists between two fundamental approaches: rehabilitation and retribution. While retribution emphasizes punishment as a means of addressing wrongdoing, rehabilitation aims to address the root causes of juvenile delinquency and help young offenders to reintegrate them positively into society. This essay advocates for the prioritization of rehabilitation over retribution in youth justice systems, citing its effectiveness in fostering long-term societal benefits and nurturing the potential for positive change among young individuals. 

Rehabilitation has a high potential of reducing recidivism rates.This is because it addresses the root cause of criminal behavior and offers offenders an opportunity to grow, reform and become better people in society by providing them with necessary support (Bandyopadhyay, 2020) and treatment through therapy and education. For example, there was a reduction in reoffending rates in Norway after they moved their focus from punishment to rehabilitation (Bandyopadhyay, 2020). Baraza (2020) argues that rehabilitation allows the criminal justice system to identify factors that could have encouraged these criminals to undertake their deviant ways thus doing more than putting criminals away. According to Weatherburn (1982), severe harsh sentences have not shown their effectiveness in reducing recidivism and that the prevention of further criminal behavior which rehabilitation achieves should be given more priority. Similarly, statistics from the department of justice showed that 67.5% of former prisoners that had not been submitted to rehabilitation programs would be arrested again as compared to retribution (Bernard et al, 2017). In the same vein, Bandyopadhyay (2020) notes that harsh punishments are not very effective in achieving recidivism. Thus rehabilitation is more important than retribution as it reduces the chances of criminals reoffending and addresses the root cause of crimes. 

Furthermore rehabilitation is economically cheaper as compared to retribution. Rehabilitation is an economically cost effective method of reducing crime as compared to the idea of retribution (Bandyopadhyay,2020). Bernard et al (2017) notes that rehabilitation is more economically beneficial and effective than incarceration. Lengthy prison sentences can be financially burdensome due to the high costs associated with it such as maintenance of a large number of inmates. For example , Morsch, 2019 argues that a lot of money is spent in the United states by the criminal justice system on prisons which are not effectively making society or individuals lives better. In the same vein, retribution has social costs as offenders often struggle to reintegrate in society (Sasha Abramsky, 2013) and may face issues such as unemployment which increases demands on social services and healthcare. Rehabilitation programs furthermore help criminals reform and acquire new skills which may aid them in finding employment and reduce the burden on the state and society by decreasing the likelihood of them resorting to illegal activities to sustain themselves and contributing to the economy through tax payment. This suggests that retribution of criminals is economically expensive and ineffective thus making rehabilitation more important than it.

Though, some have argued that retribution satisfies the victims desire for justice by providing a just punishment to the criminals and holding them accountable for their actions. .Retribution satisfies the current desire of anger and returning crime with punishment (Rubin, 2003). According to Bernard et al (2017), the majority of people advocate for retribution as they believe it gives the offender what they deserve. It seeks to impose hardship on the criminal as a just response to crime (Bandyopadhyay, 2020) and fulfills the desire of inflicting corresponding amounts of suffering upon the criminal (David and Choi, 2009).This suggests that retribution achieves justice, closure for victims and public support since it serves punishment to criminals by holding them accountable for their wrong doing. 

However, retribution justice often leads to a society filled with vengeance, violence and ignores the underlying causes of crime. Morsch (2019) notes that retribution is about making the offender know how it feels like to be mistreated and paying back the harm. This may lead to an inhumane society and does not allow the victim to heal from the crime. On the other hand, rehabilitation offers restorative justice which is a better alternative to punishment. Restorative justice allows the victims to heal from the offense committed to them and not be slaves to it by harboring lasting anger and hatred.Galaway and Hudson (1996) suggest that creating peace in communities by reconciling and repairing the injuries between the victim and the offender should be the aim of the criminal justice process. In the same vein, Morsch (2019) argues that restorative justice has many benefits as it allows the victims to heal from the crime and solves the conflict between them. This in turn may lead to social harmony in society, allows the victim to heal and recognises that a criminal can reform and accord them with dignity thus making rehabilitation more important. 

It can be argued that retribution serves as a deterrent for potential crimes. This implies that retribution sends a clear message that crime will be met with severe punishment thus discouraging people from doing it. Crime will be deterred by harsh prison sentences since no one would want to spend that much time in prison and an example of this is Rockefeller Drug laws in New York which consist of severe sentences as a means to deter people from violating drugs and committing crimes related to it (Bernard et al , 2017). Imai and Krishna (2004) argue that policies like rehabilitation that are not powerful in deterrence are weak and less effective as criminals have no fear to stay away from disobeying the established mode of conduct. This suggests that retribution of criminals is more important than rehabilitation since it ensures that people stay away from committing crimes due to the fear of punishment. 

In contrast, research suggests that the threat of punishment alone does not effectively deter individuals from committing crimes. Weatherburn (1982) notes that harsh sentences have not shown their effectiveness in prevention of further criminal behavior. In the same vein, Bernard et al (2017) notes that rehabilitation is more effective in reducing further crime rates than severe prison sentences and that people are less likely to commit crimes if the underlying causes of why crimes were committed have been addressed rather than because of the sentence they might receive. This suggests that by focusing on rehabilitation, the criminal justice system is more likely to create safer communities with reduced criminal rates since rehabilitation will address the underlying issues of why crimes are caused and have a long impact in the deterrence of crimes in society. 

In conclusion, the adoption of rehabilitation over retribution in the juvenile justice system is compelling because by prioritizing the holistic well-being and long-term prospects of youth offenders, rehabilitation not only reduces recidivism but also cultivates a society that values empathy, second chances, and the potential for positive transformation. Evidence supports its efficacy in reducing recidivism rates and promoting public safety, while also respecting the inherent dignity and potential for growth in every individual. As society strives to build a more just and equitable future, embracing rehabilitation as a cornerstone of youth justice is not only pragmatic but essential for fostering positive societal change. 


Bernard, J. et al. (2017) ‘Perceptions of Rehabilitation and Retribution in the Criminal Justice System: A Comparison of Public Opinion and Previous Literature’, Journal of Forensic Sciences & Criminal Investigation, 5(3), 555669. Perceptions of Rehabilitation and Retribution in the Criminal Justice System: A Comparison of Public Opinion and Previous Literature (juniperpublishers.com) 

Baraza, S. (2020) ‘Criminal Justice Should Focus More on Rehabilitation than Punishment. Social Science Research Network’, SSRN. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3727711 

Abramsky, S. (2013) ‘Second Chance: Charting a New Course for Re-Entry and Criminal Justice Reform’, NCJRS. Available at: Second Chance: Charting a New Course for Re-Entry and Criminal Justice Reform | Office of Justice Programs (ojp.gov) 

Galaway, B. and Hudson, J. (1996) ‘Restorative Justice: International Perspectives’, NCJRS. Available at: Restorative Justice: International Perspectives | Office of Justice Programs (ojp.gov) 

Weatherburn, D. (1982) ‘Seven Arguments Against Rehabilitation – An Assessment of Their Validity’, NCJRS. Available at: Seven Arguments Against Rehabilitation – An Assessment of Their Validity | Office of Justice Programs (ojp.gov) 

Bandyopadhyay, S. (2020) ‘ Why rehabilitation – not harsher prison sentences – makes economic sense’, The Conversation, 24(May). Available at: https://theconversation.com/why-rehabilitation-not-harsher-prison-sentences-makes-economic-s ense-132213. Accessed: 11 June 2023).

Brenda de Oliveira Morsch, B.d.(2019). ‘Retribution vs. Restoration: Tendencies of the Criminal Justice System’, Dominican Scholar. Available at: Retribution vs. Restoration: Tendencies of the Criminal Justice System (dominican.edu) 

Imai, S. and Krishna, K. (2004) ‘Employment, Deterrence, and Crime in a dynamic model’, International Economic Review, 45(3), 845-872. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0020-6598.2004.00289.x 

Rubin, E. (2003). ‘Just Say No to Retribution’, Buffalo Criminal Law Review, 7(1), 17–83. https://doi.org/10.1525/nclr.2003.7.1.17 

David, R., and Choi, S. Y. P. (2009).’ Getting Even or Getting Equal? Retributive Desires and Transitional Justice’. Political Psychology, 30(2), 161–192. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25655385

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