Criminal punishment

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Pontiac Perspective by Peter Gauthier


Pontiac Perspective by Peter Gauthier

The recent trial and imprisonment of two notorious criminals (Bruce McArthur and Alexandre Bissonnette) has engendered many critical comments about our criminal justice system. McArthur was found guilty on eight counts of murder making him one of Canada’s most notorious serial killers. Bissonnette was found guilty of the terrorist attack on the Québec City mosque on January 29, 2018 that left six people dead and several wounded. In both cases, the judges handed down sentences of life in prison.
 Bissonnette is eligible for parole after 40 years – he will be 67 then – and McArthur after 25 years, at age 91. Many have commented that the prison terms were too lenient, given that the law allows for consecutive rather than concurrent sentences. Some polls have indicated that two-thirds of Canadians approve of the death penalty for very serious crimes. To evaluate these claims, we want to look closely at the system of punishment of criminals.
Criminals are punished by incarceration in a prison. Our social system has provided four main reasons for this type of punishment: incapacitation, deterrence, rehabilitation, and retribution. Incapacitation is a measure to protect society from additional criminal acts by the offender, which the death penalty does in a final,
irreversible way. Deterrence acts as an educational tool to inform the public of the
consequences of criminal acts.  Rehabilitation aims at changing the offender into a more responsible, law-abiding person and retribution is an attempt to redress and rebalance any unjust advantage the perpetrator of the crime may have gained. Retribution is often considered an alternative to retaliation.
Now to the question of the death penalty. The usual arguments in its favour point to the excessive cost for long-term incarceration and, more importantly, that proper retribution requires a life for a life. However, there are some problems with this line of argumentation. Even the best justice system can make mistakes. What if an innocent person is deemed guilty of a serious crime (like murder)? The cases of Donald Marshall and David Milgaard are two examples. Imposing the death penalty would have created a completely unacceptable result. But, as they were given sentences of life in prison, the possibility of restitution was still available. Innocent people may have been harmed, but they lived to see proper resolutions to their cases. A second reason for not imposing the death penalty is the moral one. Every person deserves to be treated with unconditional respect. In moral terms, human life is a proper end in itself, not just the means to a higher end, but the death penalty reduces the guilty person to a means for satisfying the needs of retribution. There are solid reasons for abolishing the death penalty and not reinstating it.
What about the length of time required before parole is considered? Here, one should consider rehabilitation. There are hard-core psychopaths who should never be released back into civil society, but these are few in number and can be subject
to a “dangerous offender” status that provides additional limitations.
Most convicted criminals can be reformed and returned as productive members of society. Unfortunately, our current prison system does a poor job of rehabilitation, so it’s difficult for even the most capable judge to determine a fair time before parole is possible. Criticism should be directed at politicians who refuse to legislate major prison reforms, not at the judges who have to set the terms of incarceration.
Reinstating the death penalty is unacceptable. Criticism about parole
eligibility should be directed at the need for reform of our prison system with more emphasis given to possible rehabilitation.