Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Do da crime, do da time?

There’s an important distinction which is often lost sight of in debates over everlasting punishment:

i) What punishment is appropriate for a particular offense?

ii) Does the passage of time diminish the culpability of the offender?

Take two 9-year-old boys. Billy steals Bobby’s bicycle. Billy is never caught.

Now, perhaps you don’t think Billy is guilty of a damnable sin.

Still, this doesn’t change the fact that even at the age 50, Billy is still guilty of bicycle-theft. The mere passage of time does nothing to diminish or erase his guilt.

What punishment, if any, is appropriate at this stage of the game is a different question from whether he automatically ceases to be deserving of punishment.

Maybe you think there should be no punishment whatsoever at this point. Maybe you think the punishment should be extremely mild. Whatever.

This doesn’t change the fact that he did something wrong, however trivial, and he doesn’t cease to be a wrongdoer (in that regard) just because an arbitrary number of years has elapsed.

Playing out the clock doesn’t make a wrongdoer any less culpable. In fact, it’s often just the opposite.

Instead of a penny-ante offence like bicycle-theft, let’s take the case of a twenty-something investment banker to defrauds his clients, then absconds to Rio, where he lives in luxury for the next forty years off his ill-gotten gain.

We regard a fugitive from justice as more culpable, not less. The fact that he successfully evaded the authorities for so many years, compounds the original offense. In that case the passage of time is an aggravating factor rather than a mitigating factor.

Even if our investment banker is finally apprehended at the age of 70, he enjoyed the best years of his life in freedom and luxury while his clients were condemned to live in penury.

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