How long should a life sentence be?

It comes down to what we believe the purpose of incarceration to be

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EDMONTON, AB, Mar 12, 2015/ Troy Media/ – The Conservative government under Stephen Harper is indicating it intends to enter the next federal election running on a “tough on crime/public safety” program, first with their controversial anti-terrorism bill and now with amendments to the Criminal Code to change the mandatory sentencing guidelines for serious crimes.

The crimes they want to punish more severely certainly seem to be deserving of very long prison sentences: kidnapping or forcible confinement, terrorism, the killing of police or corrections officers, or first degree murders found to be of a particularly “brutal” nature.

Currently life sentence is 25 years without parole

Currently, “life” imprisonment in Canada, the strongest penalty that can be imposed by law, is 25 years without parole. If the Conservatives get their way, those convicted of “repulsive” and “heinous” crimes can be locked up for significantly longer than that. The new bill would also allow, in circumstances where perpetrators killed than one person, for the sentences to be imposed consecutively, taking every life cut short into account. This would make our system closer to the American one, where terrorists, serial killers, and other major criminals receive a life sentence of 200 years or more.

life sentence
Any discussion of a life sentence comes down to retribution or rehabilitation

Critics of the bill, like the NDP justice critic Francois Boivin, say that the new laws are unnecessary. Under the current Dangerous Offender status, criminals judged to be continuing threats to public safety can be held for indefinite terms of detention. This was the designation under which Clifford Olson was held until he died of cancer in 2011 and under which Paul Bernardo will never be a free man. Other critics say that the new legislation will increase the burden on an already overcrowded prison system, reducing the safety of inmates and corrections officers unless more prisons are built, an additional expense to a government trying to slash its budget.

Let’s disregard the obvious vote-baiting nature of the legislation (it’s always easy to whip up animus against criminals). Is it just? The question is an important one that has to do with the purpose of punishment: do we lock people up to rehabilitate them or is the purpose of punishment retribution?

If we want to return people to society, under the broad assumption there is something wrong with them and that some amount of counselling, therapy, and moral persuasion can fix them, then extremely long life sentences do not seem in order. If the purpose is retribution, balancing a moral debt the criminal accrues through their crime, then it’s hard to argue against lengthy life sentences for major crimes, especially if the death penalty is not an option.

Rehabilitation is an attractive option – it feels more merciful and sensitive than locking people up and throwing away the key. Its proponents argue that crime is primarily a social disease, a maladjustment due to bad upbringing, poverty, or some internal chemical imbalance. This, they believe, can be corrected and the offender returned to society as a fully functioning and contributing citizen.

The problem with rehabilitative theories is that they do not respect the autonomy of the criminal. They treat him as a symptom rather than as a person, an effect rather than a cause of his own actions. Once you start to treat people as inanimate beings, animated by “society” or “poverty” or some other sociological phantom, it’s not very far to start looking at their effects on society in purely economic terms, the way one judges a part of a machine.

If it costs X dollars to reform a criminal (note our assumption, and that of the reformer’s, that rehabilitation is possible) and the criminal can be expected to contribute only X minus 10,000 dollars, why bother rehabilitating them? It would seem to be easier just to eliminate them, removing their cost to society, rather than expensively reforming them.

Retribution should be the goal

Retribution, on the other hand, respects the criminal as a person. You have done wrong, we say through our laws and institutions, and have to pay it back. The price is being removed from society and all the benefits it brings. Perhaps it requires being removed for the rest of your life, but it still treats them as the origin and source of their actions.

My support for retributive punishment, however, doesn’t mean that I support the Conservative’s proposed changes to sentencing. Such extra punishment will only strain a system that is already overburdened. It would be better by far to lessen the burden by loosening sentences for nonviolent crimes like drug possession than increasing the punishment of certain classes of crime.

Michael Flood is a marketing writer and communications consultant. He holds an MA in Philosophy from the University of Alberta.

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