9 September 2008

The point of Gaol

We often read or see reports about Court cases where people are complaining that an offender should have received a longer gaol term, or should not have had the term suspended.

So often, what is not asked is the simple question: "Why?"

If the State is going to keep people in gaol, there needs to be a reason. It must be done to achieve a purpose for society.

It is often said that penalties need to be increased to reduce the incidence of crime. In fact, there is little evidence that increased penalties for crimes reduce their frequency. People in Britain still used to steal when the penalty was transportation to Australia - and that was long before this country was the destination of choice for British migrants!

Countries with much lower penalties for many crimes often have no greater crime rate than those with much higher penalties.

One often misquoted example is Singapore. Here in Australia there seems to be a view that penalties there are harsher, but that it not the case for many serious crimes. Assault for example has a maximum penalty of three months in Singapore, but in South Australia it is 2 years, or 3 years if aggravated, or 4 years if a weapon is used. And that is for assaults that cause no harm - if harm is caused, then the penalties go up even further.

Whether there is any benefit in putting someone in gaol has been the subject of some work in Britain:

Jail is no place for the average prisoner - Times Online
Louis Blom-Cooper, an icon in his own right at the Bar, has chosen to place his latest book. Launched last week, its central thesis is that 60 per cent of the prison population should not be there. The QC describes imprisonment as "an instrument of man's control over his fellow creatures" which has existed since historical records began. Its role as the "State's prime weapon of penal sanction for serious crime", is, he argues, more recent.
So why do we keep doing it? Increased penalties have done nothing to stop the so-called "Gang of 49."

All it seems to lead to is a higher crime rate, lack of rehabilitation, and an increasing cost to the Government of keeping people there.


Tex said...

There are 3 uses for imprisonment.

Rehabilitation, Punishment and to keep offenders away from their potential victims.

I'm of the belief that people rehabilitate themselves; nothing we can do will force them to sort their lives out. At best, we put the pieces where they can be gotten to and hope they pick them out.

Anecdotally (which is all I'm prepared to accept, quite frankly, statistics being just another form of lying, to paraphrase Disreali) is imprisonment, in and of itself, does not help in the process of rehabilitation.

Why this is so, could be the debate to end all debates. My own opinion is that by the time someone is sentenced to imprisonment, their life is already set down a path that, nothing short of an act of God, will sway them from. There are just too many alternatives to imprisonment to use up before one actually hears the clang of the metal barred door slam shut behind you. If you haven't availed yourself of the opportunity to stop offending by that stage, you probably never will. Once you are released, having served your debt, you will continue to offend, if for no other reason that you know no other way of existence.

Perhaps (and, just perhaps) if there were a short period of imprisonment earlier in a criminal's burgeoning career, they might not continue. Or maybe not. People aren't predictable.

Is it punishment? Yes, but, to some habitual criminals, prison is a much simpler life. You get stability, a semblance of normalcy, 3 square meals a day and interaction with friends. All you have to do is trade your freedom. (Who was it that said that those that would trade freedom for safety deserve neither? (Google being my friend tells me it was Benjamin Franklin)).

I'm sure that the first time you go inside must be pretty frightening. But, I'm also sure that people do come to grips with it, the human spirit being pretty indomitable.


The most important and realistic use for prison is to keep habitual criminals away from the general public.

As I said before, if you can't stop committing crime to the point where you've exhausted every chance that you've been given and get sent to prison, then you will HAVE to stop because you're inside.

Singapore is, what could be best described as a 'benign dictatorship'. Maybe their penalties aren't as harsh. But, as Michael Fay, found out to his dismay, in 1994, they don't go soft on first offenders.

He went on a 10 day spree of damaging 18 cars and was sentenced to 4 months imprisonment, $1,400 fine and 6 'lashes' on his bare buttocks with a wet cane, known as a rattan.

After unbridled world outrage and pressure, the Singaporean president showed 'clemency' and reduced the number of lashes from 6 to 4.

The punishment was meted out on 5/5/1994 and Fay survived. It's not clear, but I'll bet he'll never damage another car as long as he lives.

The penalty in South Australia for Property Damage (S.85(3) of the Criminal Law Consolidation Act, 1935, if you're at all interested) is dependent on the dollar value of the damage caused.

Assuming that the 18 cars were damaged to the value of $2,501-00 each, this makes the total $45,018-00. This would make the offence Major Indictable (pffft... Fat Chance), but, if we treated each offence seperately, you'd be looking at 18 x 3 years imprisonment or 54 years, if served consecutively.

Which just ain't going to happen.

Most likely, they'd all be pleaded out together, sentencing submissions made ("deeply regrets", "shame and embarrassment", "momentary lapse", "family support", "youthful exuberance") there'd be a fine, compensation ordered, convictions and maybe, a suspended sentence, for a first offence.

(I won't make the obvious joke about a suspended sentence in Singapore being from the neck.)

So, yes, the penalties in SA are harsher than in Singapore, but, offenders do not get the maximums in all but the most dire of circumstances and then, only with an egregious set of antecedents and only after running it to trial and being convicted anyway.

As to the "so called" gang of 49, the reason that prison isn't stopping them is a combination of two factors.

Firstly, is the age of the offenders. Anyone who has ever had dealings with the Youth Criminal Justice System will quickly realise that it is marvellous at dealing with young people who are dabbling in crime and convincing them of giving it away. It is not so marvellous with those that seem determined to get into prison long before they reach the age of majority. Bail for youths (more so that adults) is little different from a foregone conclusion and every attempt to 'do the right thing' by them is just setting them up for (yet another) failure.

Secondly, and more contentiously, is an issue that can't be mentioned without being accused of racism, despite the fact that it is the elephant in the room. Yes, they have cultural issues, not the least of which is a lack of positive peers and role models, breakdown of traditional values and none to replace them, absent or abusive fathers/father figures and almost every card in the deck being stacked against them.

If nothing else, having them inside on remand, keeps them from offending again and impacting (in a literal sense as well as figurative) with people going about their business.

The cost of imprisoning people is cheap when compared with the cost of the criminal behaviour that put them there in the first place.

raymondane said...

That is an interesting response. I can see where you are coming from, good input.


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Erin Fred said...

May be it is because they still think that they will create some future threat. While court want themselves to be a good citizen, however i think keeping them away is a better option
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