Length of jail terms

As an opening post for a new blog there couldn’t have been a better point for Paul to start a debate about than how long criminals should remain in jail for various crimes. The original post centres on a particular murderer who targeted young children, but the bottom line is that the decision about how long to put someone away for for any serious crime is one that causes serious debate and anguish for many of the victims and in the case of murder victims, their families.

One of the things that causes this strong controversy is the place for human emotion in law; there isn’t one. The law doesn’t take account of emotion, merely the facts. This will inevitably result in a large amount of upset and anguish in an emotive case that has its verdict decided purely on the facts. The problem is that emotions vary, and to pass a sentance on a variable that can change as often as the wind would be to destroy the concept of fair trial and justice on which we all rely to live our lives the way we do.

The problem is I don’t wish to make these comments without sympathy, because I have a lot of sympathy for victims and their families and I agree entirely with their view that the law doesn’t go far enough with dealing for the hurt and loss that these dangerous criminals cause. The issue in this though is who wants to take responsibility for them. In certain states of America they have the death penalty, but in those same states you get victims who feel upset about feeling like they have blood on their hands irrespective of the crime committed. Likewise you get early releases or short sentences that cause similar levels of upset for opposite reason; they feel justice hasn’t been served.

Based  on those points then the only solution is a true life sentence for these people. Unfortunately the costs involved with this are huge. Prisons take away from badly needed services such as schools, hostpitals and police. I guess the biggest question in all this is not what we want to happen to dangerous criminals but what we want to sacrifice in other areas of our lives in order to get justice served the way we want it.


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  1. Michelle Said,

    August 3, 2006 @ 5:27 pm

    The man who sparked off the ledgends of Dracular was a king of Romania a long time ago. Okay, so the romanians probably didn’t call him king… and I think it was only Transylvania, but anyways, he was law maker, had all the power and money and what he said went.

    To deal with the citizen’s in his country when it came to law and order he would impale anyone who committed a crime of ANY SORT on a spike. He had people who were trained in this, and the people impaled on the spikes suffered a slow agonizing death, as the impailers were paid according to how long the people were still alive after they had been impailed. Most of them were expert at missing all the vital organs of a person.

    This is clearly horrible, and would cause uproar in human rights courts today, but guess where the lowest recorded crime rate in the world ever (I think) was? That’s right, Transylvania when Dracular ruled. Normally the death penalty doesn’t work, because people know that if they have a good lawyer, he will get them off it, however, in transylvania, I doubt they had lawyers, but even if they did, there was no pleading out to a lesser crime and going to jail. People were terrified. Their king was a nutcase (the ledgend of Dracular being fueled by the fact that when the victems were impailed he would catch their blood in a cup and drink it, although this was only reported once, would you want to write about the king’s strage habbits too often?) however, he was a very powerful nutcase. Transylvania had law and order.

    I would like to state for the record, that I am totally against the death penalty in all its forms, think the above was barbaric and would never encourage it as a way of dealing with people in real life. However, food for thought?

    Is it better to kill a few murders to stop murders happening all together? If we could press a button now and all the murders would die and any future murders would die at birth would we do it? I mean, surely less people would die numbers wise, well maybe not, if you take into account people murdering in groups, but still… it would definately be a close call numbers wise? Would pressing the button be morally the right thing to do? Am I getting into the field of minority report? I think I am, so I shall shut up now. Just some general musings, while finishing my day at work!

  2. Chris Worfolk Said,

    August 4, 2006 @ 7:01 am

    Britain has the death penalty. It’s called concurrent life sentences. You put someone in prison for the rest of their life, they have affectively lost their life. People say with the death penalty “what happens if it turns out you were wrong 20 years later.” Well if you’ve just had them in prison for 20 years are you going to allow them to travel back in time and re-claim those 20 years? But onto the main topic…

    I’m not a big fan of prolonged jail sentences. Why? Institutionalisation. While for this to develop fully it does take a lot of time, the first steps being immediately. Most prisoners will tell you they have a rocky first weeks weeks then just get used to it. So maybe month long sentences for most crimes would be the way forward.

    It would also cut down on the cost issue. It costs £37,000 a week to keep someone in prison. Even more for someone who is going to be in prison for the rest of their natural life as you need things like extra security, suicide watch and so forth. That can put the cost up to £80,000 a year. So say they are in prison for 50 years, that’s a total cost of 4 million pounds. To “save a life” we are actually taking at the expense of countless dieing because of lack of funding for the NHS that was needed for the criminal justice system.

  3. Michelle Said,

    August 4, 2006 @ 8:49 am

    Although I get what you are saying, especially about cost, and I do think cost is a really difficult issue, I don’t think that letting people out after a month for most crimes is the answer! I think that for a lot of criminals, I would rather pay a bit more tax and keep them off the streets. For you to be imprisoned for a crime for any significant length of time, it has to be a fairly serious crime. If we stopped imprisoning murders or serial rapists because it was costing too much, then we would all have to spend a lot more on personal security, therefore we may as well pay extra taxes and keep them out of the way with the minimum amount of restrictions to our lifestyle.

    I do think that prison is also a fairly good detterrant, and really not many people want a long jail sentance. If someone told you “Look, I can get rid of this person for you/you can act out your ultimate sexual fantasy/I can get you millions of pounds, and all you have to do is risk 1 month of misery” would you do it? I think most people would put up with 1 month of misery for something they see as good. However I don’t think that most people would risk 20 years or longer behind bars for it. The fact that they suffer the most in the first few weeks, doesn’t mean they don’t suffer in the following weeks.

  4. James Said,

    August 4, 2006 @ 9:50 am

    If people can get their hands on Freakonomics (Chapter 4), I would strongly recommend reading what the rogue economists Levitt and Dubner have to say about this issue. At first it may seem shocking, however, their aim is to try and find the hidden side of everything.

  5. Michelle Said,

    August 4, 2006 @ 10:15 am

    For those of us without access to that sort of text, would you paraphrase what it is about?

  6. Paul Said,

    August 4, 2006 @ 11:31 am

    Well it’s all going on over here. In reference to my first ever blog that Kieran kindly linked to I would like to add the following :

    Cost should not come into it as Michelle, in my opinion quite rightly said. We cannot, in the case of Allitt let her out. She committed horrible crimes against young innocent children who had her no harm.

    I to do not agree with the death penalty but life should mean life. The comment on permanent incarcaration was noted by Chris but that just ins’t the case. Apart from the Liam Brady’s, Myra Hyndley and those gangster brothers (their name slips my mind at the mo) they don’t really keep people in for life.

    The judge will usually set a sentance of say life imprisonment with a tariff set that they must serve a minimum of 25 years. Why not just say 25 years is the sentance. If they say life they should mean life and in the case of Allitt she was given 13 life sentances, one for each life she took and tried to take) so she should not be released…ever!

  7. Michelle Said,

    August 4, 2006 @ 12:43 pm

    I do think that it is importaint that imprisonment is accompanied by councelling. I read a study a while ago for my psychology of Crime module at A-level (I forget the name of the study) where they bacically looked at a prison which used councelling and a prison that didn’t, and the rate of reoffending was significantly lower. I think this is a really good idea, and although it may cost a little more to employ the staff, it is going to cost less than having to keep locking most people up.

    I also feel that, especially for less major crimes, people should be given more of a chance when they get out. Okay, it goes without saying that if someone has been charged with being a peidofile, then they should not be allowed to work with children. However, I think that if someone has committed a crime, they should be able to get a job, and at the moment,they can’t. It is understandable as to why, but I do think that it is probably one of the things that leads most non-violent criminals into reoffending.

    I also think there is a big difference between violent and non-violent criminals. I think that the approach of “lock them up and throw away the key” is probably one that I can see justified for violent criminals. However, with non-violent crimials, someone who has committed fraud, someone who is a chronic shoplifter etc then they should recieve councelling, go to jail, but when they come out, they should be able to make a new start.

  8. Kieran Said,

    August 4, 2006 @ 10:29 pm

    Wow, its amazing how much of a debate we have got going here, its good to see.

    I do think Michelle has a very valid point there about what happens after a sentence. A sentence is a certain length, and when it is over it should be over. Having issues like not being able to get a job and similar merely serves to demoralise the individual and force them to feel that crime is more a friend to them than the society in which they now find themselves. This issue really needs to be addressed by law makers.

    I agree with some of Chris’ points as well, especially those about costs. Dealing with crime is important, but not at the expense of more innocents who need the money in hospitals and the like. Prisons need to be run on more of a budget; we can make the punishments worse by removing things like TV and expensive contract catering and such and also save money into the bargain. This may also go some way to making the punishments such that the sentences can be shorter in some cases for lesser crimes. It would also pave the way for the counseling and rehabilitation discussed by Michelle.

    I also want to agree with what Paul said, particularly in the last paragraph there about a sentence being given in court as a number of years and then that sentence being imposed as-is with no get outs. A right to appeal, yes, but if upheld the sentence should be the stated number of years.

    Keep the debate going people, its great to see so many points of view on such an emotive issue; James I look forward to reading the paraphrasing requested by Michelle 🙂

  9. Adam Said,

    August 4, 2006 @ 10:29 pm

    All of this reminds me of “The Experiment” programme that was shown on BBC Two a few years ago. James, I remember we had a pub discussion on this very matter a while back. What were Kondratieff’s views again?

  10. James Said,

    August 4, 2006 @ 10:48 pm

    Kondratieff described the length of growth in economic cycles (roughly 52 years) in developed countries before a sharp recession occuring. During the recession, unemployment is higher and thus (he argues) crime naturally rises. This links in nicely with Levitt’s highly controversial views which finds a strong negative relationship between living standards and crime.

    Before I continue, Levitt has been strongly criticised from all spheres; Conservatives to Liberals on his analysis. Basically, Levitt has discovered an explanatory variable that he believes closely relates to crime levels. In 1973, the USA legalised abortion where before it was illegal on moral grounds.

    Upto 1990 crime was rising to recently unprecedented levels and the trend was for this to increase further. Politicians in the 1980s were viewing crime as the largest vagary in society throughout the 1990s, which could tear society apart. However, every crimonologist prediction was incorrect as crime started falling from 1990. Levitt partly attributes this sudden decrease on the cohort of babies (whom would have been in their late teens) that did not live due to the method of abortion ( to get a value on this, there are now 1.6 million abortions per year in the USA). The rogue economist states abortions are most likely for single mothers who have poor academic and financial backgrounds. Levitt then states people who are most likely to commit crimes in later life are to be from these deprived upbringings. Therefore, abortions lead to lower levels of criminals.

    I should stress Levitt is strictly against abortions happening. His analysis simply points to an explanatory variable that links crime levels to the level of abortions. In my judgement the concluding point is that harmonious families which can provide healthy lives for their children will lead to them less likely to commit crimes in their teens and later life. Therefore, I am a firm believer for strong state intervention in order to give every child a strong opportunity to start their life.

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