The Scales of Justice Aren’t Working by Trevor Plumbly

What Constitutes Justice?

In an interesting recent case here in NZ, a man found guilty of seriously injuring an elderly lady was sentenced to a period of home detention. This was subsequently increased on appeal to a two year prison term. Up sprang the Penal Reform proponents in one corner to face The Sensible Sentencing Trust in the other. Both sides have good articulate advocates who present their cases well without mawkish sentiment or a ‘throw away the key’ spiel, and that’s where the problems start for me, at least. I like to believe that I’m reasonably well read, I try to keep up with current events and do my best to take a tolerant approach to most folks’ shortcomings, but for the life of me I can’t get off the fence when it comes to deciding the best way of dispensing justice to convicted criminals. I know that extenuating circumstances like poor family background, childhood abuse, simple ignorance and a host of other real or imaginary hurts get paraded daily for mitigation purposes, but I can’t help wondering if they should be treated as inapplicable for the more serious crimes. If you’ve been viciously raped or beaten half to death for little or no reason, does it really matter if the perpetrator was reacting to childhood maltreatment or in a drug-fuelled rage?

The Thankless Task of Judges

Judges, it seems, simply can’t get it right when it comes to sentencing. First there’s the accused and the victims’ families to satisfy, then the experts. According to the liberals, there’s little or nothing to be gained by locking miscreants away for lengthy periods, while the hard liners argue that they owe it to the safety of society to do just that. Reformists would have us believe that it’s cruel to confine someone in a confined space for lengthy periods, but their concept of prison seems more along the lines of cold, dark Victorian rather than today’s version with its heated floors, gymnasiums and ready access to educational and work skill improvement. They go on to quote the high cost of confining prisoners, but offer little in the way of viable alternatives except an ‘educate them out of it’ theory that doesn’t really do it for me. Opponents state quite simply that if they’re locked up they can’t flourish, which makes basic sense and would most certainly appeal to the more vulnerable. They could also be forgiven for feeling that the ‘be nice to them and they’ll be nice to us’ theory would, by reducing the consequences of criminal acts, render some acts of policing pointless.

On the Fence Again

Both sides’ objectives are laudable in attempting to improve society by one means or another, but it’s hard for onlookers to adopt an informed stance. We’ve become so crime hardened over the last few years that only the most gory or heinous events capture our attention; most of us have no actual experience of serious crime, so any anger and outrage is kindled by the media and is therefore second-hand, over-dramatised and short-lived. We fare no better at the courthouse, which presents us with another obstacle. Why is the same crime often punished more severely by some judges than by others? More importantly, why aren’t the reasons behind those decisions explained more fully through the media? That at least would allow us a better understanding of the mechanics of the sentencing process and enable us to take an informed viewpoint. At present, public opinion on crime and punishment is so divided and uncertain that politicians are rarely called to account on it, and get away with the occasional reference to being committed to be ‘tough on crime’. So, sad to report, I’m still on the fence. But I’ve got a lot of company there!








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