I have been interested in the subject of justice for quite a while now. While justice encompasses a broad range of subjects from fair distribution to ethics - it is theories of punishment that are most interesting to me.
I suppose the popular idea of penal substitutionary theory in Christianity is a big reason for my interest in the nature of punishment, but I have been interested in the idea since I was a teenager.
Penal Substitutionary Theory (PST) states that Jesus was killed to pay the price for humanity's violations of God's law. This requires a view of punishment that is retributive in nature. This means that a person should be punished for wrongdoing to achieve a sort of "evening out" of events. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. I think this idea sees justice as an end in itself, not a method to another end. Achieving this "evening out" of events, this balance, is seen as the way things should be. I do not see justice as an end in itself, but rather see justice as a means to achieving better lives for individuals and society as a whole. I believe that the letter of the law serves the spirit of the law.
So I do not agree with the retributive theory of punishment. While I am not sure I agree completely with broader utilitarian views, I think the utilitarian view of punishment is correct. This idea is that punishment should accomplish a purpose, and that the retributive idea of "evening out" is not coherent when it is not accompanied by one of the following reasons for the punishment. Good reasons are:
1. Rehabilitation - attempting to educate, heal, create empathy and understanding of the wrongdoing in the criminal.
2. Deterrence - creating disincentives for potential criminals to violate the law
3. Security - keeping dangerous people locked up for the safety of society
4. Paying back something when it is actually possible to do so - suing someone for some reason - lost wages, pain and suffering, to get back stolen money, etc.
The last category above is different than the idea of "evening out" in retributive justice. The reason is that if I have lost wages because of a car accident, and I sue the person that hit me, I can actually get back some of what I have lost. Money. If a person steals from me, loses all the money, and goes to prison, then this punishment does not actually pay me back anything at all. I am personally no better off.
I am going to leave #4 above for now, but actually, I don't think it qualifies as punishment at all.
Of course if someone murdered someone close to me, I might really feel that I want them dead. But regardless of this, the idea of retributive justice here is an absolute insult. It suggests that by the murderer being killed, it could somehow make up for the absence of my deceased loved one. No way. The death of the murdered pays me back in no way whatsoever. If they die, justice has not been served in my book, because the death of my loved one is a violation that can never be repaid. My loved one's death would be unjust and would remain unjust. The only thing close to justice would be for the killer to really, REALLY realize what he/she had done. And this is rehabilitation. And the person must be locked away for the security of society, both to keep the killer off the streets and to show create deterrence for others who may be tempted to kill.
Retributive justice is punishment inflicted without the purpose of rehabilitation, security, deterrence or making material amends when it's actually possible to do so; and this type of punishment, even when done carefully and dispassionately by the state, is still synonymous with another term. Revenge.