Issues

Crime and Punishment – the big questions

What are the ethical considerations around crime and punishment?

Hedley

There are a lot of big questions which open up when you begin to think about the issue of crime and punishment.

Possibly the biggest is how to balance the needs of victim, criminal and society as a whole:

  • For the victim: how can they feel that they have been treated fairly for the crime committed against them?
  • For the criminal: does the punishment offer the possibility of a new beginning when they have ‘paid’ for their crime?
  • For society: will this act of justice ensure that morality is promoted to maintain the (legal) status quo?

Few would disagree with the principle, but in reality the practice is harder. In a culture that is very aware of human rights, whose ‘right’ wins out in a conflict of interest? Should somebody who has committed murder be let out early for good behaviour when the family of the victim are still grieving, and feel that nothing short of life imprisonment is fair?

The nature of prisons is fraught with ethical considerations too – for example: Does prison protect people from criminal activity, or lead to more crime? If there is no active rehabilitative role to incarceration, then there is every possibility that the only option left to an ex-offender with a criminal record is to re-offend. Equally, in prisons offenders spend time exclusively with other offenders. Is there a possibility that incarceration offers offenders the chance to learn more about committing crime, rather than encouraging them to live as non-offenders. How can the justice system ensure that prisons don’t become ‘criminal factories’?

Equally we may ask the question: How ‘humane’ should a prison be? Prisons are designed to take away freedom – as a punishment, and also as a means of reflecting on wrong-doing. On the face of it this may seem a fair penalty. But inflicting physical withdrawal can lead to emotional withdrawal, causing serious problems down the line. If the offender stops relating to others through isolation in prison, how will they manage to live lives as responsible and caring citizens on release?

There are also considerations around proportionality – how do you ensure the punishment fits the crime? This is particularly marked when the ‘court of public opinion’ comes into session, and the people responsible for administering justice are put under pressure by politicians and the media. A case in point might be the riots of Summer 2011. Is it right that some people were given prison sentences for trying to organise rioting (unsuccessfully) via social media sites, when other people who have committed (some may argue) ‘more serious’ crimes such as theft may be let off with a warning, or given community service?

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