Guilty? Okay, you’re free to go..

May 18th, 2011 | Filed under Uncategorized

The Metro carries the following story:

Rapists ‘out of jail in a year’ under new rules | Metro.co.uk.

In order to cut the cost of trials, and to spare victims from having to give evidence, it is proposed that pleading guilty to sex charges should be further incentivised, moving from a 33% sentence reduction to one of 50%.

In the resulting fallout, nobody manages to cover themselves in glory. Jack Straw’s response is that this will not protect the public. It’s quite plainly not intended to do so, and he’s setting up the assumption in the mind of the reader that this will decrease public protection, without having to come out and say as much (a claim that he might find difficult to back up).

The average served time by a well-behaved rapist (if ever there was a contradiction in terms..) is two years. Currently if they were to plead guilty, that would be reduced to 16 months. Under these proposed plans, that would be further reduced down to 12 months. Are we to believe that those additional four months of incarceration somehow improve public safety? Do those additional four months reduce the probability of reoffending?

Personally, if after 12, 16, 24 or however many months, a person is considered to be likely to reoffend, then they should not be released. The condition for this sort of process is, however, a justice system that has at its heart a focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment.

Sadiq Khan fares no better when he describes this as “an attempt to cut costs, not do justice”. Again, nobody is claiming that this increases justice, but he’s implying that this in some way decreases justice. Justice is not measured by the length of sentence issued to a person. In spite of the symbolism in so much of our culture, modern justice isn’t a set of scales, in which one must find a balance. That way lies an eye for an eye.

When a person is a victim of a terrible crime, there is no balancing. Short of torture, there is no way to apply to the perpetrator a punishment equal to their crime. We shouldn’t be trying.

What we should aspire to do, as a civilised society, is to deal with crime in a way that creates the best outcome for society. Some element of that is punishment, not for the sake of making things balanced, but for the sake of creating a society in which some measure of punishment for doing wrong can be seen to be done. Partly to create a sense that society is fair, and partly to act as a deterrent and a practical demonstration that certain acts are illegal.

However, the best outcome for society is driven by how we treat prisoners. Ensuring that they do not become disconnected from society is key to that, and reforms such as allowing prisoners to vote are vital to ensuring that they do not lose so much touch with society that reintegration is impossible upon release. Dealing with the issues that led them to commit crime, underlying mental health issues, educational needs, drug dependencies, all of these things should be a priority. Tackling societal problems outside of prison that create criminal behaviours, as well – justice starts in society, not in a courtroom.

Playing political football with a couple of months here or there when sentencing prisoners isn’t doing anyone any favours. While I personally don’t feel at all comfortable with the idea of a rapist being released after just a year in prison, I can’t see how continuing to incarcerate them in an environment that does little to rehabilitate them is any better.

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