To a certain extent all punishments are irrevocable. There’s no time machine where you can go back and give a person the time they spent in jail back. Even in the case of a fine you can’t give a person the use of the money they would have had (basic economics: wealth now is almost always more valuable than the same wealth later). But for most of them, at least some form of recovery can be made if the punishment is invoked in error. In some cases, however, they cannot.
On social media there was a post going around about a lawyer advocating that certain sexual offenders, specifically sexual assault of a minor, be castrated. Sorry, I don’t have the link to hand now and can’t find it readily. Doesn’t matter. This is an idea that comes up from time to time. Some people tend to cheer these kind of proposals on the grounds of “they’ll never commit that crime again!” (Erroneously in this case–after all, it doesn’t take a penis to sexually assault someone.)
But there are further problems. A big one is the imperfection of the justice system. If you invoke an irrevocable penalty–castration in this case; death in others–then sooner or later you’re going to apply that punishment to someone who did not commit the crime for which the punishment was imposed. And when (if) you find that out, well, it’s too late to do anything about it. You can’t restore the unjustly punished’s genitals or bring the dead back to life.
Flip side, of course, is if you don’t invoke irrevocable penalties then sooner or later a mistake will be made the other way–a person who was actually guilty will later be deemed to have been unjustly punished, freed, and then go on to commit the crime again, victimizing someone else.
In either case the justice system will sometimes fail leading to someone being unjustly victimized, either by the state or by criminals erroneously returned to society.
There is no perfection this side of Gold Thatched Gimle (and I have my doubts about it even there).
That said, there is an old cliche about “it’s better that 100 guilty go free than one innocent man be convicted.” Frankly, I’m not sure that ratio goes far enough. While the guilty getting away with their crimes does its part to erode confidence in rule of law and the societal trust necessary for civilization, far more important to that trust is the belief that innocence protects one. The innocent in society need to be able to say, and believe “as long as I obey the law, I’m safe from the law.” Nothing erodes trust in law, in the very fabric of civilization itself, than the belief that innocence is no protection from the law.
All the more so when the protection is from something irrevocable, something where you can’t say “whoops” later and make the unjustly punished feel better with a cash settlement.
And so, the first class of error on the case of irrevocable punishments is of far greater concern than the second. I might not go so far as to say they should never be imposed because the second class of error is also valid, but the bar needs to be extremely high and extraordinary care needs to be taken to ensure that everything is correct, not just as to form but as to content, before such punishments are imposed.
In the case of that suggestion on social media, that sexual assault of a minor? You might want to consider what that entails. It could entail a person who legitimately thought the person then had sexual relationships with was of age. Permanent, irrevocable punishment because the person failed to identify a fake ID? In most US states age of consent is 16 (people think 18 because that’s what California has and so that’s what they see in movies and TV shoes). And while you might think that a 16 year old having sex with a 15 year old girlfriend is wrong, do you really think it calls for castrating the stupid teen for life? Yet that, too, is “sexual assault of a minor”.
Before invoking something from which there is no going back, be sure. Be really, really sure. And recognize that no matter how sure you are in this case, sooner or later someone will be equally sure…and be wrong.
Sometimes you don’t have any choice but to make the best decision you can on short or incomplete information, with no time for careful consideration. The operation of the legal system is not one of those times.
Take the time. Take the care. And if you must err, then err on the side of “better 100 guilty go free than one be unjustly punished.”
Civilization and rule of law depend on it.