Punishment: Class Relations and Ideological Justification
Social theories emphasize that punishment and criminal laws are a reflection of the social structure within our society aimed at maintaining political and economic order. Social structures determine the enforcement of law in contemporary society. In relation to Marxist theory, punishment is a tool used by the rich and the elite to control the poor and powerless individuals in society. Durkheim’s theory asserts that crime and punishment are integral features of an organized society. Durkheim studies affirmed that punishment and crime are directly related to the sociological enterprise as social facts determine the mechanism through which the society changes. To illustrate this argument, one has to analyze the relationship between social arrangements and punishment.
Ruche’s theory on punishment makes similar assertions on the use of punishment by those in power to reign over the poor and powerless. As revealed by Ruche’s studies, criminology, when analyzed from a sociological perspective, indicate that punishment focuses on the lower class in the society. In order for punishment to be effective, it must induce worse conditions than the prevailing ones. The modern prison conditions illustrate this scenario. The living conditions in prison are worse than the current conditions for a suspected criminal.
Similarly, the means and methods of punishment illustrate the association of punishment with social class in society. In the Middle Ages, fines were the most preferred means of punishment administered to offenders. At the time, Europe’s social classes were favoured, and a massive chunk of lands meant that labourers had varied opportunities to work for different Serfs. Serfs were supposed to be lenient in administering punishment in case of offences by the labourers. The criminal laws of this era were crafted to maintain order between the same classes. In case of an offence, private arbitration was responsible for imposing fines on offenders.
However, failure to pay the imposed fines implied that an individual would suffer corporal punishment. With the formation of central authorities, this system of punishment became a commercial entity meant to generate revenue. Later, during the late Middle Ages, the lower class social conditions dwindled as the population increased. Thus, there was a surplus labour force in various markets. As a result, landowners lowered the peasants’ standards of living. As the wages declined with the increase in labour demand, harsher penalties were instituted. Throughout this era, the ruling class believed that the development of harsher punishments prevented the members of the lower class from committing crimes.
Consequently, there was the transformation of corporal punishment into torturous undertakings. In the 17th century, a shift in the form of punishment was realized. Imprisonment became a favourable means of punishment, as the population could not supply the needed labour force. The shortage of labour forced the ruling class to exploit prisoners. In this regard, the ruling class managed to fill the existing labour gap. To date, most states still exploit prisoners by forcefully engaging them in various tasks without payment. This illustrates how the ruling class still exploits individuals from lower classes.