The Limits of Punishment

A British court has just ruled that a couple accused of procuring the murder of a boy age 11 in India, whose life they had insured for a large sum of money, could not be extradited to India to face trial because they might, if found guilty, be sentenced to life imprisonment without possibility of parole, which is against rulings of the European Court of Human Rights. The little boy’s brother-in-law was also killed in the assault on him.

There was a lot of prima facie evidence against the couple. Where someone is murdered whose life has just been insured for a large sum of money, especially where he is the kind of person whose life one would not expect to be so heavily insured, it usually gives the police a strong clue as to the culprit. My experience of such murders (I hasten to add as a doctor in a prison) is that the murderers do not usually waste much time or money on paying the premiums before trying to cash in on the death of the dear departed.

The ruling by the British judges is extraordinary. If the couple were tried in Britain, they might well face a life sentence without possibility of parole, notwithstanding (and in defiance of) the ECHR, just as they would in India. But even apart from this, there are two aspects of the ruling worthy of notice, the first being the ECHR itself, and the second being the concept of parole, which is completely incompatible with the rule of law. Gift Card i... Buy New $25.00 (as of 11:14 UTC - Details)

The ECHR opposes life sentences without possibility of parole because they do not allow for remorse, repentance, or rehabilitation on the part of the culprit. In other words, the judges of the court could not imagine or conceive of a crime so heinous that it was, ipso facto, automatically beyond the reach of remorse, repentance, or rehabilitation; and this on a continent in which scores of millions had been murdered in recent history. If those responsible for these millions of murders had said, “I apologize, I now realize that what I did was wrong and I promise never to do it again,” that would have been enough for the court.

As to parole, it is in clear contravention of the rule of law, for it lightens punishment of or punishes the prisoner by releasing or failing to release him, based upon inherently doubtful speculations as to his future conduct. But punishment can be justified only by the undoubted record of what someone has done, not on uncertain speculations about what he might or might not do in the future. Sentences should therefore be determinate. They might be too long or too short, but that should be for a court of appeal to decide. The people who administer parole are no doubt well-intentioned, but it is not difficult to deceive them. The demand for expressions of remorse will call forth a supply of expressions of remorse, especially where there is a reward (release from prison) for expressing remorse. Furthermore, while I am genuinely remorseful that I ate too much for dinner last night, I would not if I were a betting man place a large wager that I would never again eat too much for dinner. This is surely a fairly common human experience.

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