sentencing

Historical crimes, historical sentences?

Rolf Harris has been sentenced to five years and nine months in prison for sexual offences he committed at various points in the 60s, 70s and 80s.  There has been public outrage at the supposed leniency of his sentence, which will now be reviewed by the Attorney General to determine whether it will be sent to the Court of Appeal. Continue reading

Are the reasons why people take illegal drugs relevant to sentencing decisions?

The laws that prohibit possession of certain drugs are ostensibly justified because they protect people from the health risks that are associated with uncontrolled or heavy use. Some have argued that criminalizing possession of small quantities of drugs for personal use is overly paternalistic (people should be free to make potentially risky choices as long as they don’t put others at risk) or even counterproductive (criminalizing drug use fuels a black market, many aspects of which present greater dangers to individual drug users and wider society). I find these arguments intuitively persuasive (although clear evidence would be needed to substantiate the claim that criminalization is in fact counterproductive).

So, if there is a justification for putting controls on personal drug use it seems that it ought to appeal solely to the physical and social harms that would result from a policy of drug liberalization. Such an approach is roughly reflected in the UK drug laws: the graded classification system, which determines the maximum penalty for possessing drugs in each class (A to C), considers only the harmfulness of the drug: punishment is linked to risk to health. Criminalization of drug use thus has nothing to do with a moral evaluation of this drug use.

However, a news story this month raises the question of whether moral considerations are sometimes playing a role in the sentencing of those convicted of possessing illegal drugs. Continue reading

Dangerous dogs and proportionate sentencing

The government is currently consulting on whether the maximum sentences for aggravated offences under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 should be increased. This offence category covers cases in which someone allows a dog to be dangerously out of control and the dog injures or kills a person or an assistance dog. Respondents to the survey can indicate whether they want tougher penalties for these sorts of cases. The suggested range of penalties for injury to a person – as well as death or injury of a guide dog – are three, five, seven or 10 years in prison. In relation to cases involving the death of a person, the respondent is asked: “Which of the following options most closely resembles the appropriate maximum penalty: seven years, 10 years, 14 years or life imprisonment?”

Given that the current maximum sentence for cases involving death is two years in prison, changing the law to match any of these options would represent a significant increase in the severity of the sanction. Whilst the current two-year maximum has understandably struck many as too low, it is important that those responding to the consultation — and those revising the law it is intended to inform — think carefully about the principles that would justify an increase. Continue reading

Does committing a murder make a 13-year-old an adult? In US courts it does…

Some days ago, two 13-year-old boys have been charged with first degree murder in Wisconsin (USA), as reported by the Daily News (New York). Allegedly, they went to one of the boy’s great-grandmother’s home, killed her using a hatchet and hammer, then stole her jewellery and her car – and went for a pizza afterwards.

After giving horrid details of the killing, the Daily News concludes its report with stating that the boys’ defence attorney tries to have the case moved to juvenile court. The reason why these 13-year-olds are not automatically charged as juveniles but stand trial in an adult court is that the USA allows prosecutors to try minors as adults when they commit certain violent felonies. In several states, children as young as 7 can be – and are – tried as adults for some years now. They can be convicted to adult sanctions, including long prison terms, mandatory sentences, and placement in adult prisons. (Since 2005, however, under 18-year-olds can’t be convicted to death sentence any more.)

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