Something has been hanging around in my brain since jury duty a couple months ago. It is time to get it out.
During the closing arguments, the district attorney made an appeal to us that went something like the following: "The defendant has committed a horrible crime. Show the world that we do not take this kind of offense lightly and give him the maximum allowable sentence." That is a serious paraphrase, but you get the idea. As for the comment, in some ways he is so very right, but yet his statement is entirely inappropriate.
In some ways he is right. The justice system does need to show the criminal that crime is not tolerated, and thus deter some would-be criminals from becoming actual criminals. After all, such is one of government’s ordained roles according to Paul in Romans 13.
On the other hand, appeals of that nature can, and I’m sure do at times, encourage injustice. This sounds a little absurd, but I promise, it makes total sense. Here is an absurd example, but it should get my point across.
A guy named Bubba breaks into a store and steals some bread from a shop owner. The man is caught and tried. The prosecuting makes a convincing case that he did in fact steal the bread, and appeals to the jury to show the world that theft is taken seriously, and to give Bubba the death sentence. The jury agrees and Bubba is put to death.
Of course, this wouldn’t work because a reasonable jury wouldn’t do that and I’m pretty sure theft isn’t even punishable by death in our law. However, you should get the point. Sure, this would show the world that they took theft seriously, but a question remains. Is it just? Of course not. Theft isn’t good, but stealing a loaf of bread is hardly worthy of death.
As is sometimes said, the punishment needs to fit the crime. The idea of a range of punishment for a given crime in the justice system is based partially upon this idea; the range of possible punishment would be limited to the degree to which the offense is offensive.
But how does deterring crime fit in with this idea of range of punishment? This is the way I’ve formulated it to my greatest satisfaction: the proper and just punishment for crime IS the deterrent. To give less of a punishment is to not deter enough, and is unjust, because justice requires a proper punishment. On the other hand, to give a greater punishment is unjust, because it is by definition not what they deserve, even though it may deter more. This is why the juror should not be thinking "what can we do to deter crime?" but "what is the just punishment, no more, no less, for this crime?". To punish someone more than they deserve is injustice, it is wrong.
Of course, the prosecuting attorney sees himself as one who needs to push for that. To him that seems like his job. The the same is true for the defense attorney, where he pushes for the minimum. But this bothers me. Justice is what matters. I know, they have clients they are working for. But, still, this bothers me. Justice is what is needed, not lesser or greater punishment.
Proper punishment for crime is the deterrent. It is not the jury’s responsibility to over-punish a man to deter evil. I, like many, believe that the criminal justice system is not as harsh as it should be and therefore not the deterrent that it should be, but that is no excuse to over-punish.