Monday, February 1, 2010

What Is A Life Worth?

While it always makes for good headlines to claim that judges are too lenient and crooks are getting off lightly, the claims made by the Daily Telegraph in their front page story do raise genuine questions about the shortcomings of the legal system. It is always difficult comparing apples and oranges, but when you can be sent to jail for two years for driving without a license and maybe only a year or two more for killing someone, things just don’t seem to add up. This apparent disparity arises because despite the maximum sentence for manslaughter being 25 years, the maximum is rarely handed out. By contrast, the unlicensed driver is much more likely to be given the two year maximum, so that while it looks like there is an appropriate scale of punishments, the reality is that it all depends on the discretion of the judge.

Although some people are proposing mandatory minimum sentences, it should be recognized that every case is different and there can sometimes be special circumstances which warrant a reduced sentence. It is appropriate for a judge to have that discretion available. But the problem is that in the case of manslaughter, an offence which should be held to be extremely serious, the maximum penalty has only been given out once in the past ten years. Instead penalties as light as three years are handed out, presumably because of the special circumstances of each case. But they can’t all be special. The special cases should be the exception, not the rule.

Obviously there is a difference between manslaughter and murder, and that difference is intent. But even allowing for that, the truth is that manslaughter usually results from what is described as reckless indifference to human life. It is often the result of violent assault rather than simply an accident, and this is where the law truly does become an ass. One of the discrepancies in the law is the fact that a defendant whose victim survives might actually be confronting a tougher penalty that a defendant whose victim has died. It is a flaw in the system which has left the families of victims devastated in the belief that the justice system has failed them.

The taking of a life, regardless of whether or not it was intended, should be regarded as a matter of the greatest seriousness, and sadly that is not the message being delivered by the judicial system as it now stands.

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