The right balance in justice

Building-BridgesIn recent months, much discussion has swirled around our justice system: delays in bringing accused persons to trial; letting accused murderers out on bail; and the Mercy Committee’s pardoning of some convicted of crimes, heinous and otherwise. Entered into this discussion is the death penalty and suitable punishments for crimes.

There is no doubt our justice system is in need of serious and urgent attention, with a complete review and overhaul. Delays in bringing accused to trial and suitable sentences for the full range of crimes must all be looked at.

Entered into this discussion was an article in another section of the media by Peter Wickham titled Are We Willing To Forgive? In this article Mr Wickham proffers: “. . . The recent wave of prisoner releases will shortly test our willingness to forgive the ‘sins’ of some persons who have committed some rather heinous crimes. The gravity of their offences cannot be understated and neither can their state of mind when they committed these offences.

“Regardless of whether murder is committed in the course of a robbery or as a result of domestic violence, it is not to be taken lightly and demonstrates that for either a brief or extended moment, the perpetrator surrendered a necessary human quality.

“To say that a person has surrendered a quality that is central to their humanity, however, is not to say that such a person ceases to be human from that point onward or is beyond redemption.”

Our modern age has certainly rigorously questioned the previously held practices of punishments fitting the crimes. Today, our so-called civilized world makes it almost mandatory for nations like ours to move away from capital punishment and instead adopt other forms, like lengthy prison sentences, as the reform necessary for criminals.  Even life-term sentences are not as the name suggests. Lifetime sentences can now mean a certain number of years before the guilty is eligible for parole.

Many victims in our society and the relatives of victims will tell you they feel cheated in today’s system of justice. And sometimes they are left to wonder who really is being punished: the perpetrator
or the victim?

I strongly believe that there must exist a fair and just justice system. As the adage goes, “justice is blind”, but sadly it seems blind to some and eyes wide open to others.

Our capitalist model certainly allows for us to get the justice we pay for or can afford.  Our justice system while being fair must also take into account the victim’s rights and pain caused as a result of the crime committed.

Justice systems throughout the world have gone through many transformations and never seem to get the right mix or balance. On the one hand, one finds an extreme attempt at leniency for criminals, while on the other, an extreme attempt at harsh punishments.

Two stories out of Norway recently caught my attention. One story, as BBC News reported, spoke to a couple who, out of the blue one day, was visited by the Norwegian Child Protection Service at their ranch and had their five children taken away. It was suspected the couple had used corporal punishment in disciplining the children.

The case sparked worldwide outrage; more so because the children were split between three sets of foster parents.

There were no visible signs of child abuse or excessive punishment, but the law in Norway is very clear: no physical correction is allowed.

The other story was that of Anders Breivik who savagely killed 77 people –– many of them youths. He recently won a case against the state, accusing it of torture for putting him in solitary confinement.

But as one reporter wrote, “Breivik has three cells at his disposal: a bedroom, study and gym. He can talk to officers, priests, health workers and lawyers. But he can’t meet the prisoners he had promised to either convert or take hostage, and he can’t issue proclamations. To call that ‘torture’, as Oslo’s sober VG newspaper said, ‘trivializes’ real suffering and lets real torturers off the hook. True solitary confinement, where the prisoner never sees another face or hears another voice, is naked cruelty. Breivik is not enduring it or anything like it”.

Finding the middle course may not be that easy, but our societies have to constantly strive for it. Norway has been lauded for its successful prison system, reforming the criminals and having low rates of recidivism. Its jail cells are like hotel rooms, and Norway says it focuses on rehabilitation first. Nevertheless, as seen in the two stories I mentioned, it can get carried away with the system.

Reform of the criminal is necessary, but not always possible. Similarly, some crimes, especially intentionally heinous ones, where no shadow of a doubt exists the perpetrator is guilty, must be met with effective punishment. Simply resorting to every criminal being locked up, mulling away their time in cells for years cannot be a permanent solution to the problem facing our society today.

Small countries like ours will eventually have to face the difficult choice of building more prison space, releasing convicts earlier than they should be, or finding other solutions.

I know the answers are not easily found, but there is crisis waiting to happen. Crimes like those committed by Breivik in Norway where he purposely and deliberately gunned down innocent young people in the prime of their lives with every intention of sending some sort of twisted message to the rest of society deserves nothing less than capital punishment. The lifelong heartache and pain suffered by those victims’ families will not be taken away by his execution, but I am sure it will bring some sort of closure.

Breivik continues to have a stage to exhibit his evil self. And he does so while the state has to house him, feed him and clothe him. How is this fair to the law-abiding citizens of the country who must work hard and pay their taxes so the state can afford such?

So while Mr Wickham’s question “are we willing to forgive?” is an important one, the answer is not a simple yes or no. What does forgiving really mean? Can we forgive but still expect that justice be done?

I know it has been said “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”. But it can’t be the whole world if most of the citizens are decent, law-abiding people. If we as a society do not have a fair and just system of justice, then we run the risk of being held to ransom by those who wish only evil on us.

I agree our prisons must be places of reform, and we all must play our part in ensuring it is. It must also be a place where the inmates are given the responsibility of ensuring it is self-sustaining financially and otherwise.

I remember when prisoners were duty-bound to work while incarcerated. I understand, not sure if true, that conventions signed by our country don’t allow for such to happen. If that is so, I say we must do better.

In a country such as ours, with very limited resources, every available hand must work for its upkeep, including prisoners. Sitting idly day in day out just waiting on time while others have to pay taxes to allow for such is not reform.

So I agree the criminal has not surrendered his or her humanity, but he or she has surrendered his or her freedom to be given the same treatment as law-abiding citizens.   

The right balance has to be found in forgiveness, justice and punishment.

(Suleiman Bulbulia is a Justice of the Peace, and secretary of the Barbados Muslim Association. 

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