Leading Article: Retribution is a task for society

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The Independent Online
ALL IS not well when sentences handed down by judges arouse anger and indignation. Sometimes the revulsion is expressed by the victims of the crime, if still alive, or by their relatives, or by the public in general and newspapers in particular. This kind of reaction is often prompted by the verdicts in manslaughter (including joyriding) cases. Two have been in the news this week. In the first, the victim was Jonathan Roberts, a 17-year-old who died from inhaling his own vomit after being punched and kicked by a shoplifter whom he had courageously tackled. In the second it was a 23-year-old actuary, Alex Vaill, who died after striking his head on the pavement following an unprovoked attack by an unemployed labourer. Both attackers received five-year prison sentences, to the disgust of the victims' families.

By contrast, Leslie Harrison, the policewoman stabbed in the heart with a screwdriver, seemed happy with the 15 years in prison to which her attacker, Stephen Doyle, was sentenced. The 10-year discrepancy derives mainly from the significance that English law attaches to intent. Although WPC Harrison lived while Jonathan Roberts and Alex Vaill died, her assailant was deemed to have intended to kill or seriously wound, whereas those who assaulted the other two were not. Furthermore, in both manslaughter cases the immediate cause of death was not the assault itself but a consequence.

Since sentences for manslaughter can range up to life imprisonment, the wisdom of these particular verdicts remains debatable. The Attorney General can appeal against them, and is considering doing so in the Alex Vaill case. That leaves the question of whether, in all cases involving violence, the feelings of the victim or victim's family should be taken into account by the sentencing judge.

At an emotional level, there may seem much to be said for doing so. In some American states there is a trend in that direction: the family of the skater Nancy Kerrigan was reportedly consulted about the acceptability of the dollars 100,000 fine, 500 hours' community service and three years' probation to which her rival, Tonya Harding, was sentenced after pleading guilty to hindering the criminal investigation into the assault on Ms Kerrigan. Under Islamic law, the families of deceased victims can ask for the death sentence or for blood money.

Eminent lawyers argue convincingly that for English law to move in that direction would be retrogressive. In primitive societies, vengeance was left to the families of the victims, a practice perpetuated in the vendettas of the Mafia and Camorra. As the state evolved, society - as represented by the law - took vengeance on behalf of the aggrieved families.

In modern democracies the notion of vengeance has been elevated into that of a broader retribution. Crime is considered to have been committed not only against an individual or group, but against society - and it is society that should and does exact retribution, in whatever form. The widespread public indignation that greets inadequate or excessive sentences shows how fully that concept has been absorbed. To hand a share of responsibility for sentencing back to families would be to revert from social condemnation to primitive vengeance.

Yet, as is being increasingly recognised, society often goes too far by regarding the victims of crime as more or less marginal and insignificant players, fodder for the witness stand but otherwise fit to be ignored or discarded. Treating victims with imagination and humanity must be an important complement to the dispensing of justice. Witnesses deserve considerate treatment as well as any necessary protection; and it is shocking that murderers and rapists can be released from prison without any warning to those who have suffered at their hands. Compensation by the state is a recognition of the same concept: a crime against one is a crime against all. Sentences widely judged inappropriate are similarly an offence against society as a whole.

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