Time for punishments that fit the crime: Part One

So often we hear of the courts handing down strange, inappropriate or insufficiently grave punishments for crimes.

It also often gets reported that a large number of criminals who were convicted and sentenced for crimes go on to reoffend. When people look at the offences committed, and the subsequent sentences that get handed down for successful convictions, one could note that perhaps the reason that the renewed offending is occurring is not because the punishments are insufficient, but because the punishments are of the wrong type. I suspect that this is a major reason for the levels of crime that we have in New Zealand, and for the relative rates of renewed offending by people who have been convicted in the past.

Unfortunately the problem with inappropriate punishments can be partially traced back to the “lock ’em up” attitude that conservative governments have not only in New Zealand but around the world. It combines with a steadily growing jail population, the advent of digital communications with which they can conduct organized crime, but also the failure of society to address root causes of criminal activity in the first place.

I am not saying that we should close every jail and set all the prisoners free. That would be a societal catastrophe and a fundamental miscarriage of the entire justice system. But let us have a look at particular types of crime and how targetted sentencing regimes could be really useful in addressing (re)offending rates. There are two parts to sentence. One part is the punishment for the actual offence committed. The other part is to say, “this is the type of consequence to expect if you commit another offence”, and that is the deterrence. The sentence has to match the gravity of the offence committed, not only terms of the punishment, but also setting an example of what will happen if another offence of this nature happens again.

Let us also look at the role that jail has to play, which is actually quite significant. For some offences it might not be an appropriate act to send convicted offenders to jail when a punishment whose nature is direct opposite to the type of offending that occurred is more effective. In the case of murder or other offences against the life and/or body of a human, obviously the danger that the offender might commit the same offence against another human, means jail time is inevitable. But in the case of  offences against property – particularly government property – would not denial of access/service be a better method?

In Part Two I look at possible changes to the sentencing regime that New Zealand courts use, including how to use the punishment and deterrence components effectively.


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