The current Canadian criminal justice system claims a number of goals, but the essence of the criminal justice model, that is, retributive justice, can be summarized quite easily: crime is a violation against the state; justice focusses on establishing guilt and administering pain; and justice is pursued through an adversarial process where an offender is pitted against the state and only one side will be victorious. Many of the failures of the justice system - its punitiveness, its lack of offender accountability, its neglect of victims, to name a few - are the result of the implications of this model. A shift must take place in which we replace traditional law and order approaches to crime with concentrated efforts on crime prevention and alternatives to current sanctioning methods, using programs based on restorative justice principles. This transformation should not entail the addition of a small number of alternatives operating in isolation from one another, nor should alternatives be introduced simply as a supplement or as an add-on to the current system. If a change in the structure and practice of the criminal justice system is to be achieved, programs must not simply promise to better achieve traditional goals. Rather, they must question and replace the current system by challenging the assumptions, language and practice that embodies our criminal justice system. Crime prevention strategies and restorative justice alternatives cannot be patched onto the existing fundamentally retributive system if they are expected to have any positive impact on crime.
The criminal justice system is based on an adversarial process which seeks to punish individuals by relying heavily on harsh sanctions such as lengthy periods of incarceration. Our current system of justice relies on retribution, which is troublesome for both philosophical and practical reasons. From a theological perspective, a system of justice based on punishment is not possible since only people free from sin should impose punishment. Since nobody can ever fully live up to moral law, a sinless imposer of punishment does not exist. Moreover, most forms of punishment are actually acts which have been determined to be unlawful (ie. confinement and corporal punishment). To impose harm in response to harms done is revenge, not resolution. Furthermore, retribution is difficult to distinguish from vengeance. Even without the emotionality of revenge, the use of punishment is both morally impractical and practically immoral, given the existence of feasible alternatives.
Another significant problem with the current system of justice is that we use punishment in an attempt to invoke a fear of law in specific individuals and in the general public. Deterrence is the forward-looking use of punishment. We attempt to discourage people from committing crime by making them aware of punishments and their severity. There are several arguments against adopting deterrence as a goal of the legal process. First, legal sanctions will not have a general deterrent effect unless they are widely known; however current studies reveal that few people are aware of present day sanctions (Griffiths & Verdun-Jones, 1994). Second, deterrence will not affect every person the same; some people have more to lose than others. Third, deterrence theory assumes that offenders are rational actors that weigh the relative costs and benefits of crime and make rational decisions that will enhance their best interests. In other words, deterrence theory presumes that crimes are thoroughly planned out in advance. In reality, however, crimes are not calculated acts perpetrated by criminal masterminds. Many crimes are committed by individuals who are affected by alcohol or other drugs or who are acting in a state of extreme emotion. Clearly, these people are not likely to be able to weigh calmly the costs and benefits associated with the commission of a crime.