Response to Lewis

I found C. S. Lewis’s rejection of the humanitarian theory of punishment both persuasive and prescient.  He writes that he had to publish his article in Australia because the English would have no part of it.  It comes as little surprise, then, that his predictions are coming true in our own day and age.  Criminal justice in England is now desiccated.

Lewis writes that once we have replaced morality with expedience in criminal justice, the government has carte blanche to use the law to enshrine whatever opinions it wants.  In the case of modern-day England, the police seem to enforce tolerance of homosexuality more passionately than it prevents violent crime.  For instance, just this week, the British police sent four officers to an 11-year old boy’s home to question him about an e-mail in which he called another student “gay.” [1] In what country could a schoolyard insult be a crime?  In the same country where two squadrons of police officers sent an Oxford student to a night in prison for calling a horse gay, that’s where[2].  Given these penalties for thoughtcrime, we are not far from the days where any expressed opposition to homosexuality will be a criminal offense.

What is especially ironic about the 11-year old boy’s tale is his father’s claim that the police had been unresponsive to several reports of break-ins at his business.  One of the Britons who commented on the story wrote that the police sent no officers when the other party in a traffic accident refused to give his insurance information.  In the Theodore Dalrymple article I cited earlier, the police criticized the author’s wife for demanding a response to an arson committed near her house.  Nor is the evidence merely anecdotal: according to The Observer [UK], convictions for all violent crimes are in freefall; the conviction rate for reported crimes is now below 10%, and that is merely for crimes the police bother to record[3]!  Since the Labor Party took power, rapes have doubled and “serious woundings” have risen 50%; only the government itself believes crimes are decreasing.  So we see an unintended consequence of using the law for social engineering: police most zealously guard the laws which are the easiest to enforce.  It is easier to bully a schoolboy than to hunt down a rapist.

Finally, although philosophers like Hart question sentencing, wondering what “units” we would use to achieve proportionality between crime and punishment, it is clear that many British judges are erring egregiously toward leniency.  According to Dalrymple, two different youths who beat middle-aged men to the point of permanent brain damage, convicted and sentenced by judges hoping to “send a message” about violence, each received less than a year in prison.  As the author notes, nine months in prison is fleeting, especially compared to the 30-40 years the victims will now spend mentally impaired and unable to provide much for their families.  Such frivolity toward sentencing is a failure for both the retributive and the deterrent theories of justice.  If anything, it is a nod toward the humanitarians, some of which would argue that the youths were too young to know any better, and that there was nothing to rehabilitate.  Surely, England would benefit if it paid more attention to its retributive past.


[1] Hull, Liz.  “Police send four police officers to tackle boy, 11, who called schoolmate ‘gay’.”  Daily Mail [UK], 2 April 2007.  <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/pages/live/articles/news/news.html?in_article_id=445996&in_page_id=1770&gt;.

[2] Dalrymple, Theodore.  “It’s This Bad.”  City Journal, Spring 2006.  <http://www.city-journal.org/html/16_2_oh_to_be.html&gt;.

[3] Rose, David.  “Crime rate soars as criminals walk free.”  The Observer, 28 May 2006.  <http://observer.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,,1784623,00.html>.

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