There is ongoing controversy about the punishments handed out by Courts, especially to juvenile offenders. The Courier-Mail had something to say about this today:
But it’s not just offenders under 18. People are complaining that many offenders seem to be getting off lightly. The judges seem to be reluctant to hand out prison sentences, or anything at all like a “real” punishment.
There is some sense in their reluctance. Keeping someone in prison costs money, and the emphasis on punishment these days (at least here in Queensland) is rehabilitation rather than retribution. Both of those reasons make sense. Of course, really serious offenders may be exceptions to the rehabilitation rule, but surely teenagers just being immature and making mistakes should not have the full weight of the law thrown at them? Especially given that most of us could probably remember stupid things we did at that age and didn’t get caught for.
But it’s a complex problem. At what point does a bit of teenage stupidity become punishable by something more than a slap on the wrist? There are millions of possible scenarios and millions of people to make judgments and that means that no punishment will ever be able to satisfy everyone.
We can all feel distress when some kid walks out of Court figuratively (or even literally) thumbing his nose at the law, smiling because he avoided any real punishment, and not deterred in the slightest from breaking the law again. That’s understandable. But the judges have an enormous – some would say impossible – and certainly onerous task before them.
You can’t satisfy everyone. Does punishing one person deter others from doing the same thing? Does the punished person learn from their mistake? Does setting up someone as an example to others work?
Yes and no. Sometimes. Not in all cases.
And that’s the problem. I don’t know what the answer is; I don’t even know if there is one.
I used to be a lawyer. I saw a lot of punishments handed out to my clients and to other people. And I know that each time the Judge or Magistrate thought long and hard about what to do. They are bound, too, by the rules laid down by the government. If anyone should be targeted for being too lenient, it should include those making the laws, not just those enforcing them.
As a lawyer, too, I saw the effect punishments had on my clients. Some were genuinely affected by it. Others not so. That’s only to be expected. No one solution works for everyone.
Social reform may be the answer. Maybe we should be tackling the reasons crime occurs as well as handing out punishments when it does.
I remember when I was a full-time teacher seeing a sign on a Deputy-Principal’s wall: “If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll always get the same results.”
Something needs doing. But just what exactly is a hell of a big question.