Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Tom Brake is wrong about retribution

According to BBC News:
Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake said sentences "should be about restorative justice", not retribution.
I share the concern that some of the sentences being handed down after the riots are too severe. And, as I tweeted the other day, in the long run such sentences will undermine public confidence in the judicial system rather than reinforce it.

But I do not share the view, often expressed by liberals and apparently expressed by Tom Brake here, that retribution should not be a part of punishment. Because retribution - the idea that people must suffer because they have done wrong - is a necessary part of punishment for two reasons.

The first is that it hard to do justice our sense that the punishment should fit the crime without it. The feeling that some recent sentences are too severe presupposes that we know what a just amount of retribution would be.

The second is that dispensing with the idea of retribution makes it hard to explain why we should limit punishment to those convicted of a crime - particularly if we adopt the alternative approach of reforming people that is often espoused on the left.

After all, there are many of us who could do with being reformed, who could be better people. If we remove all idea of retribution from punishment it is hard to see why we should not seek to reform them too. Think of the way that Dr Barnardo took to stealing poor children from their parents because he operated without any constraints.

The alternative approach of restorative justice, which Tom Brake advocates, is attractive, if only because it promises to give young offenders a measure of moral education. They will be made to face the effect of their offending on other people and thereby, we hope, come to understand that it was wrong.

However, the concept is as yet poorly developed in Britain and, for adult offenders at least, I am not convinced that we can wholly separate it from retribution. Is there not some requirement on the offender to do things they would rather not do as part of restorative justice? After all, if a millionaire committed a crime, no cheque, however large, could satisfy the need for restoration unless it were accompanied by a sense that the offender had put himself to trouble in some way that he would rather not have done.

One other point while we are discussing the philosophy of punishment. When I studied philosophy at York 30 years ago, I do not recall the most popular argument in favour of imprisonment these days - that it keeps offenders off the street and prevents further offending - ever being used. There were Utilitarian arguments in favour of prison, but they were always couched in terms of deterring future offences by that offender or deterring others from offending.

Today prison is defended as a way of warehousing the wicked. I am not convinced that this represents progress in our moral thinking.

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