Politics, Philosophy, Polemics

Archive for the ‘Punishment’ Category

The Paedophile School Teacher and the Sentence: A Comment

In Punishment on May 6, 2014 at 6:12 PM

The background case is that in the 1980s a teacher at Carmel College in Oxfordshire had groomed a 13 year old girl with whom he engaged in sex acts when she was 14. The case has recently come to court and the teacher has been sentenced to two years in prison. I make no comment on the length of the sentence and whether it was correct, too harsh, or too lenient, but I do comment on a reason the judge gave for the sentence.

According to the Oxford Mail, “Judge Mary Jane Mowat told the defendant the case was a difficult one to sentence, but that she had to jail him partly to reflect ‘reasonable public opinion.’” My concern is the “reasonable public opinion” reason for the sentence, not the sentence. We can break down “reasonable public opinion” into two components “public opinion” and whether that opinion is “reasonable” and consider each part separately.

Consider the following thought experiment that I have taken from Roger Crisp, Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Mill on Utilitarianism, (Routledge, 1997), p.118:

The sheriff A town in the Wild West has been plagued by a series of violent crimes. The sheriff is confronted by a deputation led by the mayor. The deputation tells him that, unless he hangs the vagrant he has in his jail, whom the whole town believes to be the criminal,there will without doubt be a terrible riot, in which many people will almost certainly be killed or maimed. This vagrant has no friends or family. The sheriff knows he is innocent.

It seems to me clear that irrespective of “public opinion” the innocent man should not be hanged. Public opinion can be in favour of all sorts of things that might be rejected in law. For example, the public opinion could be to “hang all paedophiles” or “lock up rapists and throw away the key.” In my opinion “public opinion” should not form a  component for sentencing policy.

A get out clause for hanging the innocent vagrant in Roger Crisp’s example above would be that it is not “reasonable” to do so. Hence, it could be argued, that it is not “public opinion” that can form a component for sentencing, but “reasonable public opinion.” The problem here is who decides what is reasonable?

In the case in question, it is the judge who decides. I will ignore the separate problem of how the judge knows what the public opinion is and simply accept that she knows that public opinion is that a jail sentence is required. In order for the judge to have an opinion on whether the public opinion of a jail sentence is reasonable, it seems to me that she has to have an opinion as to whether a jail sentence is reasonable for the committed crime irrespective of public opinion. If she does not think a jail sentence is a reasonable punishment for the crime, then the criminal should not be jailed and if she thinks it is reasonable punishment then she may jail the criminal. I am not sure why public opinion need come into it. What is relevant is her own opinion.

I suppose that there is a possibility that the judge thinks that there is more than one option that is reasonable for punishment of which a jail sentence is one. In this situation, the judge can give weight to public opinion (or the judge’s view of public opinion) in sentencing. Even if this is the situation with the sentencing of the school teacher in question,  I feel that it is disastrous route to take and, in some ways, an attempt at abdicating responsibility for a sentence.

The judge is present throughout the whole trial and should consider all facts and mitigating factors when sentencing. The public have not necessarily done so. They might have just seen a headline in a newspaper or heard a biased report. Public opinion of a sentence might be of interest to sociologists but when it comes to the sentence itself a judge should not allow themselves to biased by it.


Off With Their Heads!

In Philosophy, Punishment on April 20, 2013 at 9:18 AM

The debate on the death penalty is an interesting one. There are many who wish it to be retained in the USA and those in the UK who would like it reinstated. I suspect that even of those who are in favour of the death penalty, not many would go so far as the late American philosopher, Louis P. Pojman:

My proposal is to broaden, not narrow, the scope of capital punishment, to include businessmen and women who unfairly and severely harm the public… the executives in the recent corporation scandals who bailed out with millions of dollars while they destroyed the pension plans of thousands of employees may deserve severe punishment and, if convicted, they should receive what they deserve. My guess is that the threat of the death sentence would have a deterrent effect in such cases. Whether it is feasible to apply the death penalty to horrendous white-collar crimes is debatable. But there is something to be said in its favor; it would certainly remove the impression that only the poor get executed.


Louis P. Pojman, “A Defense of the Death Penalty,” in Andrew I. Cohen and Christopher Heath Wellman, Contemporary Debates in Applied Ethics, (Blackwell Publishing, 2005) p.121.

Prisoner Votes

In Punishment on May 30, 2012 at 12:00 AM

I am a keen reader of normblog, the weblog of Norman Geras, Professor Emeritus of Government at the University of Manchester.  While he does not allow comments on the blog, he will often respond to readers if they contact him on his Twitter feed, which is something else that I follow. The fact that Norm kindly profiled me on his blog has absolutely no bearing on my positive recommendation. Well, it might have some bearing, but in truth it is minor compared to posts such as this one, which led me to reading this wonderful article.

But I am digressing. The purpose of this post is not to praise Norman Geras but to note a disagreement. He has been writing quite extensively on his blog about prisoner votes.  (See here plus follow his internal links.)  Norm appears to be  against prisoners having votes and I am in favour. One of Norm’s points is this:

so many supporters of voting rights for prisoners feel it unnecessary to make any case for them; they just take it for granted that prisoners have the right to vote and have it unconditionally.

If truth be told I would put myself in that camp. I do not really see why it needs justifying why prisoners need a vote. I feel the onus is more on the those who feel that prisoners are not entitled to a vote to explain their reasoning. In any event, here I shall provide one reason why I feel that prisoners with terms where they are likely not to serve five more years should have a right to vote.

General elections in the UK are not on fixed dates like the US Presidential election, the dates are variable but must be no later than five years from the previous election. Consider a prisoner who is due for release one day after a general election. If he had not been entitled to vote that means that for up to five years as a free man he never had a say in who governed him.  This, to me, is unfair.  Even if one feels that a prisoner who is serving, as an example, 20 years, should have no right to vote in elections at the beginning and middle of his sentence, because for the full electoral term he will be in prison and has no rights to say who governs him, that does not mean to say that he should have no rights to say who governs him as a free man.

If this argument is accepted by people who feel that prisoners should have no right to say who govern them while in prison, then they might argue for fractions of  votes for prisoners.  This fraction is more difficult to calculate as elections are not on fixed dates, but one would be biasing in favour of the prisoner, who would therefore have no grounds for complaint, if the full five years are assumed between elections. In simple terms, if a prisoner is due for release one year after a general election, then their vote weight should be reduced by 1/5. In other words, their vote is counted as 80% of the vote of someone who is free for the full term. As an another example, if someone is due for release 3 years after a general election then their vote weight should be reduced by 3/5 and their vote would count for 40% of a normal vote.

There is an obvious objection to this based on a contradiction. This is to do with minors. Similar logic could be used to suggest that a 14 year old should get 20% of a vote and a 16 year old 60% of a vote etc., with the calculation based on how many years they will be aged 18 or over through the electoral cycle. I would reject this argument. The reason a 16 year old cannot vote is not the same reason as why an adult prisoner cannot vote. The 16 year old is deemed not mature enough to make a decision and if that is the case, he is equally not mature enough to make a 60% decision as a 100% decision. A prisoner does not have the right to vote as it is a right that is taken away from him. Hence I see the two cases as different.

Incidentally, there is an inbuilt compensation at the end of the life to a 16 year not having a say in who governs him for period of the electoral cycle when he is 18 or over. This is that he will be given a full vote (assuming he is over 18) in the last general election prior to his death. His final vote will therefore encompass a period when he is no longer alive and people who are no longer alive have no right to vote – even by proxy.

An objection to this argument, more valid, in my mind, is this: consider a general election was held the day before a criminal is sent to prison for say 3 years. For the full length of his prison sentence (unless there is an early election for any reason) the prisoner will have had a say in who governed him while in prison. His vote is not retroactively reduced by 60% and nor could it realistically happen. Hence some prisoners have a say on who governs them while in prison. If  some prisoners are able to vote to determine who governs them while in prison,  in my opinion all prisoners should be able to do so. I see no reason why it should make a difference if the sentence is a short or a long one. By this argument, prisoners should be allowed to vote and be provided a full vote.