Justice or Revenge

Is there a difference between “Justice” and “Revenge?” How should a criminal justice system behave when it comes to punishing offenders? Difficult questions to really answer, but they are ones which need to be addressed.

This thought process has been sparked off by a post on the OUStudent blog about a news item on the BBC today. Titled “Criminal Justice in the News” and it does hit a few issues that I like to get on my high horse over

In the BBC news today there is an article titled “Death driver sentence ‘too short’” which begins with:

A widow is calling for a tougher jail term for the lorry driver who was responsible for her husband’s death.

Grandfather Peter Ellison, 62, of Carlton Husthwaite, near Thirsk, was killed when a lorry ploughed into his tractor on the A168 last September.

David Jackson, 56, of Kirkbymoorside, was jailed for nine months at Teesside Crown Court on 22 June after admitting causing death by dangerous driving.

Mr Ellison’s widow, Dorothy, wants the Attorney General to review the case.

It goes on to confirm that the Unduly Lenient Sentence team is considering referring this case to the appeals court and outlines the basic details of the case. While this is indeed a tragic incident, and you cant help but to feel sorry for the widow left behind, it raises the issue of “Justice” or “Revenge.” This is something, which to me, constantly hovers over pretty much every court case – rarely do victims think “justice has been done” unless the offender gets disproportionately punished – and its after effects are often the basis for all manner of political grandstanding (I wont start on how bad the Church can grandstand – that is a rant for another day).

The BBC article finishes with some telling remarks:

Mrs Ellison, who would have celebrated her 34th wedding anniversary last weekend, said: “It just seems like we are the victims really because he gets nine months and comes out and gets on with his life.

“We have lost somebody special and nine months just doesn’t seem fair.

“I know he didn’t do it deliberately, but to kill somebody and just get nine months, it’s an insult really.”

To me, this is a call for revenge rather than justice. Mrs Ellison is the victim, in that it was her husband who died (Murder is an odd situation in that the victims tend to be dead… 🙂 ), so all I can assume the first comment above means is she wants some one else to suffer more than she has. That is not justice.

Her second comment above is a sign of the hurt she is feeling, but the BBC (and radio news today) have spun it into something else. It is not fair that her husband died in the accident, but no amount of punishment of the driver will change the state of affairs. Her husband will remain dead. Nine months in Jail (away from his own family) and a criminal record is not a “light punishment” – this is a myth often pushed about by the Righteous Right-wing media, mostly people who have no concept of the effects of even relatively short periods of detention.

Crucially, it raises the question of how long would Mrs Ellison consider fair? Ten months? Nine Years? 99  Years?

Her last sentence shows she understands the reality of the situation, but is still hurting. Mr Jackson did not set out to kill (mens rea remember) and it is accepted by the court his actions were not deliberately reckless. This leaves a big question mark over what Mrs Ellison is asking for here.

Every day people drive dangerously and recklessly. Some of these people have accidents which destroy property, some have accidents which injure people and some have accidents which kill. Should the punishment be based on the (almost random) consequences of the act, or the nature of the act itself?

Equally (if not more) importantly, is the “punishment” of criminals there to make them suffer or rehabilitate them and deter others? Are people deterred from having accidents by punishing those who have very serious accidents? I doubt it.

What would sentencing Mr Jackson to a longer prison sentence achieve?

[tags]Society, Culture, Law, Rights, Murder, Crime, Punishment, Social Rights, Social Values, BBC, News, Dangerous Driving[/tags]

6 thoughts on “Justice or Revenge

  1. I came across your site through the Atheist blogroll. Overall I think it is great but I have an issue with this particualr piece. Until you have been through the earth shattering experience of having your life completely torn apart by a reckless negligent person you can never fully understand the extent to which it affects ones life.

    In July 2006 a drunk driver named Mark Nigon hit my vehicle head on. My survival was called a miracle by the doctors. Mark was out of jail the next day. When finally sentenced he recieved 11 months of work release. He then hid his assets so that he would have to pay us as little money as possible.

    Did Mark set out to hurt me that night? No. But was he breaking the law? Yes. Reckless, negligent, aggressive, and drunk drivers are breaking the law and if they hurt or kill someone they should be punished as if though they did it intentionally. It’s no different than if I accidently shot you because I didn’t know the gun was loaded. It would be my fault for pointing a gun at you in the first place.

    A car is a giant weapon and if you can’t control it you should not be driving it. Feel free to look me up and read more about this.


  2. Angelsdepart, thanks for your comment. I would never expect every one to agree with every thing I write and the world would certainly be a boring place if we all thought the same things.

    I have no doubt, and never intended to imply otherwise, that the suffering caused in situations like yours (or the one mentioned by the BBC) is serious and life-changing.

    The issue I was addressing here is the difference between justice and revenge. Drunk drivers fall into a different category than negligent drivers (IMHO), as there is an implied “choice” which could, in turn, imply the all important mens rea.

    The important thing is that punishing some one based on an unintended consequence defeats the basic premises of criminal justice – you can not deter people from accidents.

    Reckless, negligent, aggressive driving is criminal and punished accordingly. Should a very reckless, negligent or aggressive driver who has an accident which only causes property damage be punished less than one who was not as reckless/negligent or aggressive but has an accident which results in the loss of life?

    In your case, if you dont mind me asking, how long should the driver have spent in jail?

  3. Well it will take me probably 3 years before I will be fully recovered. By fully recovered I mean as much as I can recover, not 100% of where I was. It seems fair to me that he spends those three years in jail. To be honest though, had this man stepped foward and covered all the damages that he caused, rather than hide his assets, I would be inclined to think that this was a forgivable mistake and that he should spend no time in jail.

    His actions after the accident and his unwillingness to take responsibility are what should be punished. I know this will never happen, but I would like to see a dollar amount attached. You cause, “this much damage” you spend “this much time in jail.” I think that would be the most consistant way to punish someone in this situation.

    Is that a totally crazy idea?

  4. It is far from a crazy idea, and I whole heartedly support you in most of what you have said here. The scumbag who has caused you so much suffering is a scumbag, there is very little I could (or would ever want to) say in defence of him.

    He has shown himself a “bad person” by his subsequent actions – hiding his assets for example. He should, IMHO of course, be subjected to further legal sanctions for this over and above any for his driving offence.

    In this manner it is the same what ever the crime – if some one is found guilty of a crime and then breaks the law to avoid punishment, this is a separate and new offence and should punished as such.

    The idea of attaching a monetary value to everything is something which is quite old – the Danes in England did it before the eleventh century – and it has worked very well (historically). I am not sure why it has, largely, fallen out of favour but I can see there would be potential problems over deciding a consistent value of pain and suffering.

    However, the idea that “X” damage results in “Y” jail time certainly has potential – especially if it could be scaled up to corporate and national crimes.

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