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Resolved: Rehabilitation ought to be valued above retribution in criminal justice systems.

For the first article in our 2016-2017 NCFCA LD series, we’re going to take a look at the resolution’s context and wording.


What Is the Criminal Justice System?

Experts tend to subdivide the CJS into three major facets: Law enforcement, courts, and corrections.


  • Law Enforcement. CriminalJusticePrograms.com informs us that: “Individuals in this component include patrol officers, sheriffs and deputies, federal agents, game and parks rangers, detectives and other individuals that usually make first contact with criminals. These individuals are responsible for upholding the law, investigating crime and apprehending the individuals responsible for committing the crime.”


  • Courts. According to the same source, the purpose of the court system is “to ensure an individual’s rights are not violated and a fair trial takes place.” Black’s Law Dictionary puts the essence of a court succinctly: “An organ of the government, belonging to the judicial department, whose function is the application of the laws to controversies brought before it and the public administration of justice.”


  • Corrections. Findlaw.com does a good job detailing the corrections branch of the CJS: “If the defendant is convicted and the charges merit jail time, they will be sent to the corrections system for punishment. Typically, this involves probation, incarceration, or both. Probation can be either supervised or unsupervised. Supervised probation requires the offender to check in regularly with an officer to ensure compliance with the terms of his probation. Unsupervised probation means that a person only faces jail time or other punishment if they run further afoul of the law. Incarceration is also a common outcome of criminal trials, especially in more serious cases. The convict is housed in either jail or prison. Jails are usually located in each county and are for less serious offenses. Jail terms usually do not exceed one year. Prison terms are usually for longer than a year and almost always involve serious felony offenses.” While it’s possible to discuss rehabilitation and retribution on the law enforcement or court level, 99% of the debate will be waged on the corrections battlefront.


A couple of things to consider:


  • International\Historical Scope. This resolution is primed for examples from across the globe and throughout history! Make sure that you devote a significant portion of your research to criminal justice systems throughout the world. The World Factbook of Criminal Justice Systems describes the systems of over 45 countries (FYI the interface for this website is bad). The World Justice Project, an organization dedicated to cataloguing the rule of law, examines the criminal justice systems of over 150 countries. Not only are the systems of other nations relevant, but you could also venture into the realm of International Criminal Justice (genocides, crimes against humanity, etc. that aren’t native to just one country but concern the world as a whole).


  • CJS Purpose. If the NCFCA retains the current wording, one negative argument I foresee being popular (and Isaiah too!) is that while rehabilitation is a very important thing, it doesn’t necessarily belong with the criminal justice system. A negative using this strategy might define “criminal justice system” something along the lines of “the system of law enforcement that is directly involved in apprehending, prosecuting, defending, sentencing, and punishing those who are suspected or convicted of criminal offenses” (New Oxford American Dictionary), then contend that rehabilitation doesn’t exactly accord with the fundamental purpose of the criminal justice system, and that retribution is more central to the context of the resolution. One possible response to this argument would be to present a nuanced theory of punishment (see The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on “Punishment” for further details) and argue that both retribution and rehabilitation describe different aspects of punishment, and that conceiving of punishment in simply retributive terms is one-dimensional. Another argument could be that we’re not necessarily debating in terms of what the CJS is, but rather what it ought to be. Regardless, the express purpose of the criminal justice system will be a major issue in some debate rounds.


“Ought to Be Valued”

Thankfully, the NCFCA reverted back to the phrase “ought to be valued” to indicate a comparison, as opposed to their usage of “is more important” for last year’s resolution. At a superficial level the two might appear synonymous, but upon further inspection the grammatical overtones conjure up different frameworks for different debaters.

While some may think quibbling about semantics is unnecessary, I think it’s beneficial to fortify a strong grammatical understanding of the resolution at the outset of the year… so that when you inevitably encounter “that debater” with his or her “unique” (or, to some, “exasperating”) perspective, you’re already conversant with some wording nuances. As stated elsewhere, if you know more about the grammar than they do, you can defeat them easily, not to mention that in the process you constructed a solid framework upon which to ground your arguments. 🙂

With that said, what exactly does the phrase “ought to be valued” entail?


  • Necessitates Actor: Ought to be valued by whom? Keep in mind that the resolution demands an answer to this question, whether implicit or explicit in your case. Unlike last year, where debaters could theoretically postulate that “is more important” was independent of a decision or choice, “ought to be value” clearly signals that some entity (or entities) will be making a choice between rehabilitation and retribution, whether it’s the US federal government or correctional officers in Norway.


  • Requires Rationale: Ought to be valued why?  To say “X ought to be valued above Y” requires an external standard\ weighing mechanism to justify the comparison. While intrinsic worth is a possible avenue to take the resolution (one I’d strongly caution against for a multiplicity of reasons), it’s not superior to any other method for measuring the resolution. Naturally, justice will be a popular value… but this gives you the opportunity to probe intricacies and various conceptions of justice (as we’ll give you opportunities to do in forthcoming posts), or you and your opponent could simply agree to the value of justice and argue at the criterion-level, which produces a more sophisticated (and some might say more productive) debate.


  • Implies Implementation: Ought to be valued how? Valuing something is an action, a verb. When we discuss the act of valuing, we’re talking about a process with practical application. When drafting your cases, be sure not to neglect the real world dimension of the resolution… illustrate for your judges how rehabilitation ought to be valued above retribution.

In the next NCFCA LD post, we’ll explore how the intriguing concept of justice as morphed throughout the ages.

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