Letter: Vengence not served by harsh sentences

This focus on punishment reveals an obsession with inflicting torment upon wrongdoers, even if such penalties do nothing to reduce violence.

To the editor:

This is a hard letter to write.  It’s an emotional topic and I foresee it will be misconstrued as a lack of sympathy for victims of crime. It is really a plea for a less vengeful society.

It is very troubling to read about people’s obsession with punishment in the case of the murder of Caesar Rosales. In fact after almost every trial and sentencing, news articles focus on punishment and public outrage that the sentence wasn’t harsh enough.  This focus on punishment reveals an obsession with inflicting torment upon wrongdoers, even if such penalties do nothing to reduce violence.

In fact, harsh sentencing may encourage rather than deter violence. Incarceration, particularly without adequate health care, rehabilitative therapy, meaningful work, and protection from assault, is a form of violence. When the state condemns a person to death or long-term confinement in brutal conditions, it is announcing that vengeance is honorable, that violence is a legitimate response to injustice, and some lives are not redeemable. Destroy your enemy. In an economically insecure, profoundly unequal patriarchal and white supremacist society, this is a dangerous message.

Another assumption seems to be that sufficient vengeance will bring emotional closure. How can inflicting more torture on perpetrators and doing nothing to reduce the level of violence in society, thus increasing the chance that another person will be the victim of similar crime, bring ‘closure’?

Can we imagine a criminal justice system—restorative not retributive justice—where the imperative is not to punish bad people but to help all people become less violent? Can we imagine ‘public outrage’ because an offender was not afforded sufficient psychiatric care? Rather than punishment for its own sake, the primary goal of criminal justice should be the well-being of all involved—victim, perpetrator and other community members. The culture of punishment must give way to a culture of rehabilitation and healing.

This is already underway in some schools, with programs emphasizing dialogue and mediation over suspension and expulsion, seeing misbehaviour as an opportunity for teaching responsibility and self-worth. When young people internalize the principles of nonviolent conflict resolution rather than the punishment imperative, they are less likely to use violence against those who offend them. Less violent child-rearing and schooling and less tolerance of state-sanctioned violence are key components for the sweet dream of a less violent society. It’s that or build more prisons, expect more rapes, more wars, more barbarism. The future is up to us.

Mark Haley, Kelowna Peace Group member