Musings Of A Spiritual Atheist

Jurisdictions which do not use the death penalty often substitute life imprisonment instead. In many jurisdictions a life sentence is about 25 years, although it varies in different places and may be modified by remission of part of the sentence, either as a standard practice or as a reward for behaviour while in prison. If a sentence is reduced by one third, for instance, then a 25 year life sentence could effectively mean 16 years and 8 months.

For multiple offences, multiple life sentences may be imposed. Where these are stipulated to be served concurrently it is effectively a single life sentence. Where they are imposed to be served consecutively it may result in a sentence of some hundreds of years, depending on how many life sentences are involved. Consecutive sentences are not as common as concurrent sentences since it is believed that all people, including prisoners, need some hope for the future. Seeing the light at the end of the tunnel is therefore beneficial for the prisoner and helps the guards in keeping control.

In times past, both ancient and medieval, imprisonment was usually reserved for those who committed offences against the ruler or the state. It was rarely used for offences by one private individual against another private individual unless the victim was particularly important. For those more mundane offences, other, more physical, punishments were imposed, such as cutting off a hand, branding or public humiliation. Imprisonment, after all, imposes a cost since guards must be paid and the prisoners fed. Offences against the social order were punished by members of the social order, and the one complaining had to bear the cost of enforcement, if there was any.

Of course, society was different in those days. Most people lived in small villages where everyone knew everyone else, and most were related to each other. Even the towns and cities had fewer inhabitants. This meant that justice was often a family affair and the state only got involved in the most severe cases. Punishments were also quite harsh. Branding was not uncommon in England during these times, announcing to all for the rest of a criminal’s life what he had done. The bible stipulated death by stoning for a whole range of offences, religious as well as civil. Sometimes it appears that killing the offender was the commonest punishment imposed in past societies. Although that is probably not true it certainly was quite frequently used.

I am not sure how imprisonment became the standard punishment. It appears to have become so during the period from the 1700s to the present day, perhaps as part of the “Age of enlightenment” that was developing in Europe at that time. In any case, imprisonment is now a very common punishment for all sorts of offences of a civil nature although we no longer punish people for religious offences. In many countries the death penalty is no longer allowed and physical mutilation is banned, although some religiously controlled states still impose both. Canada no longer allows executions for any reason and mutilation, whether physical or chemical, is absolutely forbidden but imprisonment is common. Social punishments are still used, particularly for minor offences, but are usually confined to picking up trash from a highway or something similarly innocuous, often coupled with a promise to behave properly in future and with some kind of general oversight, or probation. Punishments are much more civilised and considerably less vicious, yet we have no more crime than they did in the past. Arguably, we have less, since we have a larger, and wealthier population which generally lives harmoniously together, each doing what they want without inhibiting others.

Still, there is a large gap in the justice system in that victims often lose out from the crimes against them. I know that there is a fund for compensating them but it is quite inadequate and requires the victim to apply and be evaluated for compensation, rather than being compensated as a right as part of the process redressing the wrong done to them. It also throws the cost of compensation onto society when it should rightly fall on the offender. The gaping hole in the justice system is that victims are often required to bear the cost of crimes, and that should not be the case.

When a camera or a bicycle is stolen and the thief arrested after disposing of it, the victim should be reimbursed for their loss as an integral part of the justice system. They should not have to accept the loss and save up to buy another one. Neither should society in general absorb the cost unless there is no way that the offender can be identified. The offender should be responsible for reimbursing their victims for the losses they have had as a consequence of the crime including any expenses associated with it, plus an amount as a punitive component for damages.

The compensation to the victim should be paid out of the offender’s future earnings, either directly by payroll deduction or from a fund established for that purpose which would pay the compensation to the victim then register the amount as a debt against the offender. This should be repaid according to a schedule specified by the court as part of its judgment and based on bank loan or mortgage repayment schedules, whichever is appropriate in each case and taking the offenders individual circumstances into account. Repayment would, of course, include interest to the fund.

How can the offender do this if he is in jail? Clearly he cannot, and I envisage that jail terms would not be imposed in as many cases as they are now, the obligation to pay compensation, including damages, taking its place. I suspect that most offenders would prefer this route to being confined in a jail and would likely comply with its terms.

For those who either refuse to comply with the judgment and pay compensation for any reason, imprisonment until the debt is repaid would still be an option. However, the prisoner would then be required to do productive work of a socially beneficial nature while in prison and paid at the standard rate for that kind of work. Deductions could be made from what is paid for living costs, savings for when released and repayment of the debt. Undoubtedly, it would take longer to retire the debt while imprisoned than it would if not imprisoned, so refusal to repay the debt voluntarily would go against the offender’s own interests.

I am sure there would be many challenges if a system such as this were to be instituted, but the continued incarceration of many members of society at public expense and their removal from society as contributing members is not sustainable. Our prisons are overflowing, yet offenders continue to be jailed. It would be much more sensible to reduce the numbers of those in jail and at the same time give justice to the victims of crime in the form of monetary compensation paid for by the person who victimised them. In cases where leaving the offender in the general population would not be advisable, the second option already described could be imposed by the court, and punitive jail terms would still be available where needed.

This approach would not solve all problems within the administration of justice, but I do believe that it would reduce the jail population, reduce the financial burden of imprisonment on taxpayers, benefit and compensate victims of crime, keep offenders as productive members of society and help in lessening the traumatic effects on the families of people who commit crimes inadvertently or in the heat of the moment.

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