Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Compassion for the criminals

I know this may seem an odd question, but why are we engrossed in showing compassion to out-and-out criminals?

According to the BBC website, the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, didn't want Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi to die in prison. Why not? AAaM was almost 49 when in 2001 he was sentenced to life imprisonment for the worst terrorist atrocity in British history. There had to be every expectation that he would die in prison. Why would this invoke a moment's thought, even less compassion, on the part of David Miliband?

And then there's the case of Ronnie Biggs. Sentenced to 30 years' imprisonment for his part in the Great Train Robbery, he's spent a total of about 9 years inside before being released on compassionate grounds.

If we're going to show compassion - and there are many cases where we should - let's show it to people who can reasonably claim to be deserving of it. If we were to draw up a list of such cases, I suspect Biggs and al-Megrahi would be at the bottom of it.


Slim said...

In my opinion releasing people when you know they are at deaths door is acceptable. It is only just to show humanity. Otherwise we may as well bring back the death penalty as it is cheaper. Most of these people have family who would cherish those last few days/weeks. This is the humanity bit.

However, they need to be sure the prisoner is on his/her last legs. Has Ronnie Biggs passed away yet? I heard a rumour (Daily Wail though) that the Libyan chap was released with just one doctor's diagnosis of the terminal disease (and how close to death is he?).

I know my views are not shared by many. Again, that makes me human :-)

Sean Haffey said...

OK Slim, I have a question.

Let's say that during the trial of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi he had been diagnosed with cancer of the liver, which is typically fatal within a few weeks.

Would you be happy that he was convicted, sentenced to life imprisonment and immediately released?

Slim said...

That is an extreme case. My answer would be yes as I would expect his family to be given time with him during the last days. But this guy has been in prison for a number of years now.

Anthony said...

It depends on how much resources are spent in trying to judge whether these people should be let out. If the cost of the expertise and time taken is sufficiently large, I'd be inclined to give up on compassionate leave. I also think each time it's widely reported that an individual is released on the grounds of compassion, it reduces the deterrent effect of prison. People who commit murder could easily have sufficiently distorted perceptions to think that they would be able to feign a terminal illness, or somehow abuse this rule to escape early.

Arash said...

Of course we should show compassion. Compassion is the foundation of morality. It is what makes us human, humane and civilised.

But I don't think you are really questioning that.

Does compassion have a place in the determination of the sentences of criminals?

In this country at least, it does and this is nothing new.

Every single criminal conviction is assessed, with compassion, for whether custody is really necessary. Depriving someone of their liberty is the last resort. Custodial sentences are as long as they need to be, and no more.

These are, thankfully, fundamental principles of our justice system. Because two wrongs don't make a right, and society owes a duty even to criminals to treat them justly and fairly. Just because we deal with criminals, we should not criminalise ourselves; we deal with them in a civilised manner.

The real question is *how much* compassion should influence our thinking when it comes to the most serious criminals, such as serial or mass murderers. Sure, we may give them a life sentence, but should life mean, literally, life?

To be honest, my instinctive answer to the last question is: "Probably, yes." However, I feel it right to stand firm behind another fundamental principle: Justice requires that sentences be kept under review. Because people change. Because circumstances change. It is one thing to lock away a fit, healthy, young man for the foreseeable future. It is another to keep a dying 95 year old in prison for a crime committed when he was 18, no matter how serious the crime was. It may have seemed right 80 odd years ago to lock the person up for life; but it might not now.

I am not saying 'life' should never mean life in prison. And I reserve my position on whether some crimes are simply never forgivable; but I strongly doubt this proposition. Are some people incorrigible? Maybe, but I'll leave that one to the scientists (as much as I distrust science).

In any event, I was talking there about the most serious offenders (of which al-Megrahi would appear to be one, but I do not think Biggs is one, but then I do not know that much about these individual cases). For the most serious offenders, I can see that the arguments against showing significant compassion are stronger. But let's not lose sight of the fact that justice is dispensed on a case by case basis.

So, in sum, I think the answer in principle emerges from an understanding of the context of the way we do business in the legal system in this country. If the question is "Is it ever right to allow considerations of compassion to influence the severity of the custodial sentence of a very serious offender?, the answer must be "Yes".

(For those reading who do not recognise my name, yes, you guessed correctly, I am a lawyer.)

TB said...

If it is just a question of compassion, then surely there is an argument not to punish wrong doers at all? Likewise with our claim to humanity and being civilised. If we are capable of depriving someone of liberty because of their actions, and release them when they become terminall ill, its just a matter of degree.
Do we consider that people forgo their rights to be treated with compassion when they take actions like Lockerbie? That someone is capable of pre-meditated murder of hundreds with the collateral impact upon their families must in some way affect their eligibility to recieve humane treatment. We look after domestic pets because of their utility and affection, yet when they bite or kill we have them shot. Is this uncivilised and uncompassionate just because a dog is a lower form of life than a human being? Does a faithful and loving dog making one unprovoked attack deserve any less than someone capable of making moral judgments, understanding the consequences of their actions, and still murders innocent civilians?
I suggest that what we call a compassionate and civilised response is something else. I accept that some relatives of victims offer forgiveness possibly as a way to deal with their own sense of powerlessness, hopeless rage and pain, however for those not directly associated, what basis do they offer for their 'compassion'? That they have reached a pinnacle of 'civilised'? I think the use of these labels is just a diversion and other social mechanisms are being played out. My personal view is that a Lockerbie bomber type has waived all rights to humane treatment and it does not lessen anyone to enforce the existing sentence. Aside from mistakes made, there are all too many cases of people being released on compassionate grounds who then re-offend. Should they be offered 'humane' leniency ad infinitum to repeatedly reoffend, just to show how civilised we want ourselves painted?

Dee said...

I think the real questions have not been asked. eg Why does David Milband feel compassion for a mass murderer? Why not for the families of those who died? What is compassion? Has the term been used in this instance as a CYA, a bit like the race card which we in SA know so well. If we say it was compassion then any critique must mean that those that criticise are not human. Was the mass murderer able to exert more manipulation on Milband than the victims of his crime? Is that a good recommendation then for a Foreign Secretary that he is able to be manipulated by murderers?

Alan said...

Life means life - the whole duration.

Why use tax payers money debating being soft on criminals? Rather build more prisons - Britain is going to need them.

Then lock up Miliband.