Let the Punishment Fit the Crime the Law of just Desserts

The concept of just desert is one poorly understood outside of legal circles. The term’s common usage complicates comprehension for outsiders, and, even once the term’s true meaning is established, it can be a confusingly complex, and, at times self-contradictory, category of judicial philosophy.

According to Gary Martin of Phrases.org, the phrase just desert’ comes from the 16th Century. A clearer, modernized version would be that which is justly deserved.’ In that respect, the conventional wisdom interpretation of the phrase is not so far off; many believe the phrase refers to a dessert, as in a treat, and therefore is in reference to a just reward for a good deed.

In fact, the term correctly applies to deeds both good and ill, but, from the perspective of the criminal justice discipline, it is most often applied with regards to negative behavior. It is, after all, seldom the duty of the courts to reward those who have committed honorable or noble acts.

According to Thielmann & Wenzel, just desert is a philosophy of justice whereby a criminal offense is viewed as lowering the victim or community’s status or power relative to the offender, which requires a degradation of the offender to redress the moral balance (Thielmann & Wenzel, 2006).

However, according to Prof. Nuyen of the University of Queensland, Australia, just desert means to ensure that a punishment is both appropriate to a crime, and that it is consistent. He states, “Someone who steals a loaf of bread does not deserve the sentence of life imprisonment” (Nuyen, 1997).

Now, given the confusion surrounding the topic, it seems that the majority of the argument in the matter is over exactly what the term means. If one considers just desert to mean a redress of grievances by mutual degradation, it should be a matter of little difficulty to discredit and banish such a theory from the field of justice. However, if one considers the term to mean that criminals should get exactly what they deserve, no more, no less, then one would be hard-pressed to find a convincing argument to stand in opposition.

The concept of distributive justice has long been menaced by varying interpretations of the word fairness’, and it seems that this word, which refuses to conform to a universalized definition, stands at the crux of this matter as well. How can one balance what is just for an offender based solely on the nature of a specific offense while maintaining any semblance of fairness toward that offender as an individual? Furthermore, how can any single deed merit a single sentence, the essence of judicial consistency, without taking into account other actions and circumstances that apply to the participants in a specific case?

There are all manner of unrelated issues drawn into the mix where justice is concerned. It seems experts in the field are unable to differentiate and delineate specific areas of focus, and so try to tackle everything at once in a single subject. For example, many authorities on the matter have pointed to Andrew Von Hirsch’s work, Doing Justice, for a clear picture of what just desert means. Yet, even in summary, even the vaunted clarity of Von Hirsch seems a swirling hazy vortex of incoherence. In the very midst of stating the case for a cause-effect relationship in the practice of justice, Von Hirsch brings up notions of moral obligation on the part of the distributors of justice. To paraphrase, he says, we should not cause suffering, and punishment causes suffering which has nothing whatsoever to do with the notion of crime and punishment being in a causal relationship!

If even Von Hirsch, who is hailed for his clarity, is unable to stick to a single subject matter or area of thought with regards to the moral philosophy of justice, then it seems there can be no form of rational argument over the matter of any term, let alone one so poorly defined, where there are as many meanings as there are experts, and many of those mutually exclusive, as just desert. It can be argued whether there should be an objective purview of justice, where the punishment of offenses can be seen as a cause-effect relationship, or whether justice should deal with each case as an individual occurrence, taking into account all individual traits of all players, and the circumstances of the case, while keeping a superiority of morality always foremost in mind.

Yet, without any such clarity or focus in this field, such discussion is effectively impossible. Therefore, sans a consensus definition, and without the ability to keep any such discussion on any specific topic at hand, there can be no argument for or against this concept.

Thus, it is my opinion that just desert is a necessary component of justice, if and when it is considered to be representative of the concept of punishment being a resultant effect of an offense having been committed. Unless the distributor of justice presiding over a trial participated in the offense, then his/her own moral qualms should be left out of the matter.


Martin, G. Just deserts. Retrieved March 8, 2008, from http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/just-deserts.html

Nuyen, A. (1997). Just desert. Retrieved March 8, 2008, from http://www.springerlink.com/content/p80225m258v408gp/

Thielmann, I., Wenzel, M. (2006). Why we punish in the name of justice: Just desert versus value restoration and the role of social identity. Retrieved March 8, 2008, from http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/klu/sore/2006/00000019/00000004/00000028

Von Hirsch, A. (1976). Doing justice. New York: Hill and Wang.