Crime and Punishment



At a time when the nation is stunned by the horrific death of PC Andrew Harper, it’s worthwhile considering age-old questions surrounding crime and punishment.

The origin of the phrase “An eye for and eye, a tooth for a tooth” is a little unclear, one view being that it dates back to Babylonian times. It’s mentioned in the Bible a few times. While some might interpret the meaning in a purely literal sense – retribution of equal measure being taken against the wrong doer – the laws in most Western countries tend to see it as the basis for justice reflecting a fair level of compensation for the wrong that has been done, as well as a suitably fair punishment for the criminal depending upon certain circumstances.

It’s the Western interpretations of justice that can vary and sometimes seem to fly in the face of what many would say is fair, often appearing to favour the victimiser more than the victim. Obviously not all the relevant facts in cases are apparent to the public via media reports and judges and magistrates are occasionally vilified for what appears to be perverse outcomes. 

How many acquittals or sentences fall into that unfair category is a matter of opinion, but there are certainly instances in which adherence to technicalities of the law overshadows what many would regard as ‘natural justice’. I can understand the difficulties here and surely no one wants to see a legal system that can be interpreted in all sorts of ways, nor do we want what some might call the  ‘justice of the mob’, but an important point to remember is that all legal outcomes will have consequences for the accused, for the victim and for wider society.

Setting a level of punishment too low, or in some cases no real punishment at all (cautions etc.), will still be seen by some as justice in a compassionate and civilised society, probably in the hope of some kind of rehabilitation, but how many also see it as a ‘green light’ to carry on? A few years ago, the Liberal Democrats proposed that a first offence of burglary should not involve a custodial sentence. That ridiculous suggestion ignored the fact that such a crime is about much more than just property. Many householders, especially the elderly, suffer deep anxiety following such an intrusion – far worse than the loss of items stolen or rooms ransacked. It also assumes that this is the first time the burglar has strayed, not the very real possibility that he has simply been lucky up to now.  

Pet theft has rocketed during the coronavirus lockdown, but is regarded as stealing property. Yet losing a family dog or cat for many people is no different to losing a family member and the emotional effect can be enormous, lasting for years. Two Conservative MPs (Gareth Johnson and Tom Hunt) have been leading the charge, along with dog charities, academics, barristers and rescue groups, to change the law to address what has become a well-organised dog theft industry in the UK. Simple fines, for the few criminals who are caught, pale into insignificance for the rewards that stealing certain breeds can bring.

When a criminal walks away better off than when he began his nefarious deeds, it makes a mockery of phrase ‘Crime doesn’t pay’. Receiving compensation if hurt while committing a criminal act is an anathema to decent people, yet it has happened.

The relatives of the victims of the London Bridge attack in 2017 are not eligible for legal aid, yet a brain-washed young woman, who left this country to support a vile death cult dedicated to destroy this country, is granted what could amount to hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money in legal battles, something is definitely wrong.

It may seem like an odd point to raise here, but an interesting opinion was expressed in a television programme some years ago looking at the Romans and their love of violent and cruel spectacles in arenas such as the Colosseum. Gladiators would fight to the death and people and animals would die in more and more cruel and bizarre ways purely for entertainment. How could it be that such a relatively civilised society was so blind to human and animal suffering? The answer lies in their view of mercy, which Roman leaders and presumably many citizens at the time, generally regarded as weakness…and weakness can be exploited and therefore is to be avoided.

How, then, is the line drawn between a fair and civilised sentence and a punishment that looks like it came out of the Old Testament or indeed the extremists of the so-called Islamic state?

A good starting point is motive. I’m sure the vast majority of people asked if they would like to have more money would say ‘yes’. The motive is therefore understandable, but thankfully only a relatively few people in this country would take to criminality to obtain it. Out of that number, there will be some who would be prepared to break the law only if no one was hurt or that the crime was regarded as ‘victimless’, however erroneously, such as insurance fraud. Then there are those who are quite willing to use violence in what might be regarded in a ‘macho’ way and yet be as appalled as anyone at the battering of a little old lady for her handbag. Finally, we’re left with those who have virtually no compunction about who they rob or how much suffering, physical or mental, this might cause. Indeed, such individuals may well take pleasure in the infliction of pain, their uncaring attitude to life being not so very different to those who sat in the Colosseum.

In many cases, such people are the product of a bad upbringing and perhaps are responding to a world that he or she feels has stamped on them from birth. Violence, particularly the domestic type, can be a way of a downtrodden person exerting some kind of dominance over someone or something perceived as being weaker. There’s no doubt that this is really complicated, but to automatically blame poverty, as the Left so often do, is a copout and is as outrageously wrong as it is an insult to poorer people. 

My background is not one of privilege, far from it, but I and all those with whom I grew up, even at an early age, would never have dreamed of mugging a pensioner or hurting an animal. So, what was it in the lives of the group of young lads who stole Chunky, a small chihuahua? This little dog was given drugs, was kicked and punched, had his neck and leg broken and was set on fire before being dumped on a rubbish tip. Amazingly, he was found, treated and survived. The four youths who pleaded guilty to causing unnecessary suffering were banned from keeping animals for five years and had to pay court costs. Later this year, their ‘punishment’ of not being able to own an animal ends and they could, if they wished, obtain another dog. 

Was their punishment enough?  Have they been deterred from repeat incidents? Was the owner of Chunky compensated? Was the cause of animal welfare served for the future? 

To my mind, absolutely nothing at all was achieved, certainly not justice for Chunky or his owner. Nothing, that is, apart from letting others who are sick enough to torture a small dog know that they can do the same and get a slap on the wrist for their primitive fun.

The Conservative Party is committed to increasing the sentencing for cruelty to an animal from a maximum of six months to five years – an important and well overdue step. While the young criminal thugs who tortured Chunky might have avoided a prison sentence because of their age, the raising of the level of custodial sentences will reflect the seriousness of the crime and must help to a degree in deterring those of a similar mindset. 

It is ironic that we see Labour’s shadow environment minister, Luke Pollard, urging the government to hurry up and pass this new sentencing law. The Labour Party was in power for 13 years when they could easily have introduced such a law and yet they spent much of the time debating and eventually passing the ridiculous Hunting Act – a law that is based on ignorance and prejudice and has in no way benefitted the welfare of wildlife. Even when this new law on sentencing is in place, no doubt the Left will be seeking the maximum sentence for those hunting with hounds – a ridiculous comparison when considering the suffering of animals like Chunky by genuine sadists. 

While more and more ‘crimes’, especially of the thought kind, seem to appear almost year on year, it becomes equally difficult to understand how the judiciary reach what should be the appropriate level of punishment. Of course, handing out more custodial sentences is problematic when considering the numbers already in prison, but surely the situation isn’t helped by examples such as that of a pensioner who was jailed because she had understandably withheld part of her council tax. The local council had repeatedly neglected to clear syringes and other drug-use material from her road and she rightly saw this as the authority failing in its duty. The Labour-run council involved, in its wisdom, decided to take legal action against her, rather than clean the streets. Was she wrong to withhold her council tax and refuse to pay a fine? Was jail really the best punishment for her?  

Talking of streets, maybe a simpler way of deciding who should and shouldn’t go to prison comes down to that question of motive, mindset and who would you rather meet on our streets, a mindless moron who can torture a dog for fun or a pensioner who simply wants her road to be clean?

Jim Barrington is a former Executive Director of the League Against Cruel Sports. He is now an animal welfare consultant to the Countryside Alliance. Follow him on twitter @jimbarrington