I happened to catch the end of a show “The Final Verdict” on TV in which the judge and other law enforcement officials endorsed the idea that in sentencing a criminal it was necessary to send a message to other criminally minded individuals of the punishment in store for them for illegal activities.
Not only do I find that to be wishful thinking, it is also not just.
It is wishful thinking because criminals are not the kind of people who think of the consequences of their actions. If they did, they would probably not commit anti-social deeds. One of the reasons why capital punishment was abolished, was that it did not deter criminal activity. Now for judges to declare that their sentences have a deterrent effect is naive. The desire to provide an example to other criminals takes sentencing beyond the case before the judge and takes on a subtle aspect of vengeance. Justice needs to be clinically objective and when a judge makes statements that go beyond what has been legally decreed as appropriate punishment, his impartiality comes under question. And that could invalidate his verdict.
The person in the dock, no matter how reprehensible his actions, is by law allowed a fair trial. Sentencing, therefore, must be confined to the merits of the case. If the accused person is found guilty of a heinous crime, let him receive the legally prescribed sentence appropriate to his actions. His punishment should not be determined by the effect it will have on other like-minded criminals. In wanting to make an example of him, a judge may be exceeding the legal stipulation of what is appropriate punishment. That would be unjust.
And it is futile as well. Criminals who deserve harsh sentences, are generally people who have no respect for the law and social conventions. They exploit every other individual’s conformity to the law and social conventions. They live with the belief that they will get away with their crimes.
Sentencing must remain within set legal limits and not attempt to reform society. The whole justice system is there as a deterrent to crime. An individual judge with an individual criminal is part of that system and should remain within its legal boundaries.