Scottish Justice Goes Oprah


I may be the only one out there who does, but I think that this is a terrible idea. According to The Scotsman, victims of crime are to be given the chance to make a statement in court prior to sentencing.

[Kenny MacAskill, the justice secretary] said that, for too long, victims had been treated as “baggage” by the system, but the statement would give them the chance to say how the crime had impacted on their lives, whether emotionally, physically or financially. In murder cases, the family of the victim would have the right to provide a statement.

In all instances, the statement would have to be taken into account by the sheriff or the judge, and it could result in a longer sentence.

Basically the criminal justice system only works because it does not do this. It is supposed to be dispassionate, objective and detached because this is the best way to ensure equal treatment for all – divorce the process from emotion and evaluate the facts. I know that emotional damage is one of the facts that must be evaluated, but sentences based more heavily on pity, anger or vengeance is the only thing this will achieve. There is a reason judges are experts in the law and not supposed to have any sort of interest in the outcome of a case – if you let people with direct involvement become too involved then they will just be looking to exact revenge which is absolutely, squarely not what criminal justice is about.

Criminal justice is about one thing: deterrence. In a social animal there are several ways to subvert the common social contract and perpetuate one’s genes by undesirable methods and the credible threat of punishment is the way in which we prevent it. So a criminal justice system must be forceful, objective as possible and not so severe that its mistakes destroy its validity to the social group it is there to police. Human beings are basically evolutionary animals and we have to understand the role of punishment and social rules in governing our instinctive behaviours.

MacAskill also said the following:

“We have to put victims at the heart of the criminal justice system”

No, Kenny, we don’t. In fact I suspect that is exactly the opposite of what we should be doing. Does their victim status have to depend on the vagaries of the criminal justice system? Surely victim support should be an unconditional right of all victims of crime, irrespective of whether or not there is someone there to prosecute. Victims should be at the heart of the victim support system, criminals should be at the heart of the criminal justice system.

The courtroom is not the place for support group-style psychotherapy in the form of cathartic confessions. I understand that people may want this, I’m saying that they shouldn’t get it. This sort of emotional minefield needs to be dealt with by professionals somewhere else. The courtroom is for prosecuting criminals and the only thing that should matter should surely be what they did and whether or not it is legal, not how anyone feels about it. Otherwise we take another hugely unwelcome step towards a Jerry Springer style lynch mob justice system.

I may be completely wrong about this, so please do set me straight if you think so, but this whole idea seems deeply suspect to me.

Bob Dylan – Who Killed Davey Moore? (Live 1964)
The Detroit Cobras – Cry On
The Nips – Vengeance Shane MacGowan’s band before The Pogues.
The Doug Anthony All Stars – Oprah

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