Victims of crime live with the consequences of those attacks long after perpetrators have done their time and been released, more often than not to re-offend. Taxpayers also suffer, as the public purse must cover the steep cost of incarceration. Why not oblige offenders to make whole all those they harm?
We live in a world of George Constanzas, the Seinfeld character perpetually angry with everything and everyone, convinced that the world owes them a quality living. They are not shy to express their anger violently towards anyone weaker than themselves. Sudden and unprovoked assaults on strangers, resulting in a grievous bodily and mental harm have become just another reason for a shrug of resignation and a deep sigh of helplessness in law-abiding citizens. Victims are left to struggle with the violent dislocation of their lives and its long-term consequences. Our police, frustrated by politically correct leaders and courts’ unwillingness to throw the book at the violent thugs, increasingly struggle to filter their frontline responses through a mesh of explicit and implicit restraints ordained from above. When members of a designated “victim” group rampage, bitter experience has taught officers that it is more than their careers are worth to act and act decisively.
And violent offenders? Incarcerated at the taxpayers’ expense ($110 000.00 a year per prisoner, on average, if you please!), they are not required to pay any damages to the victims they have injured or the taxpayers whose pockets they drain. True, there are so-called restitution orders, but these are imposed at judges’ discretion and seldom invoked.
According to a report on the costs of the criminal justice system by Andrew Bushnell, of the Institute of Public Affairs, Australia’s criminal- justice spending is the fifth-highest among comparable OECD countries, amounting to almost $16 billion in the 2014-15 financial year alone. This comes to roughly $300 per prisoner per day. Out of this gargantuan sum, $4 billion is spent on the construction and operation of prisons. The rate of re-offending is high. Nationwide, 59% of prisoners have been previously incarcerated. Clearly, something is wrong.
“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”
That famous quotation from The Torah, or as Gentiles call it, Old Testament, is not known for its timidity. It seems to be calling for vengeance — unrestrained, wanton, unbridled, blind, furious, passionate vengeance. At least, that is what the guru of the non-violent political advancement, Mahatma Gandhi, seem to believe when he famously quipped, ‘An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind’.
Well, not exactly. It might surprise, but the biblical call for retribution does not negate the need for restraint and common sense in its application. What it does do is provide measured and clearly delineated response parameters when violence is perpetrated. What it does say is that the punishment must fit the crime and be commensurate with the degree of the offence’s severity.
The perpetrator’s “eye” cannot be taken as a payment for a “broken tooth” because an eye can only be taken as a punishment for the victim’s loss of an eye. To demand an eye for a tooth would be overkill.
In one succinct sentence, using these metaphoric descriptors, the Bible offers the entire concept of precisely formulated and just retribution. This pattern does not limit itself to physical retribution, however. It also offers management of the long-term consequences of the committed crime, which are so often not limited to immediate physical injury and anguish. The victim’s future is also affected, perhaps in a reduced ability to earn a living and provide for a family. Likewise the psychological scars endure — fear of dark streets, maybe, or the compulsion to check and re-check that doors and windows are always locked. No one doubts fear’s legacy lingers long and hard; it was, after all, the basis for the recent claims against US Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, whose purported teenage hunnishness was accepted without question by Christine Blasey Ford’s supporters as having made her forever fearful of confined spaces. In demanding that a criminal suffer a loss similar to the one inflicted on his victim, the biblical formula equalises crime and consequence, obliging the criminal to contemplate and grieve his own loss as a consequence of his personal action.
Demand for equalisation of an injury imposes a structural boundary for the future behaviour in a criminal’s life. It might or might not serve as an effective deterrent, but it would certainly go a long way to assuaging the victim’s injured sense of justice. In this sense, the criminal/victim connection is not dissimilar to a connection between absent father and child. In both cases, the consequences of a single action, premediated or not, last a long time. They differ in one important dimension: the absent father pays alimony/child support until the fruit of his loins is able to provide for him/herself. A criminal, having inflicted long-lasting damage onto his victim, is seldom, if ever, required to do likewise.
There is no mention of any role of a State, a country or a supportive and forgiving community, let alone future rehabilitation of any kind in the Bible when it comes to crime. Nothing but personal responsibility. Offender’s interests are considered only insofar as they co-operate with the system’s intent to recompense the victim. This is in stark contrast to the contemporary concept of criminal justice, where a malefactor is supposed to be rehabilitated for re-integration into society. A court is obliged to weigh up the chances a criminal will re-offend and his prospects for leading a reformed life. The interests of a violent crime’s victim come a poor second, if at all. The State, maintaining the monopoly on retribution, interposes itself between the criminal and victim. Thus does the State deprive the victim of a satisfaction in witnessing just and deserved punishment meted out to the tormentor. By the same token, it also deprives a criminal of the chance to redeem himself through the very personal path of objectively, rather than emotionally, demonstrating remorse by putting his mouth where his money is and paying the cost of his crime to both the society and the victim.
How do we make them pay? Violent criminals, who inflict a sometime life-long suffering on their victims and loved ones, have no obligations towards their victims’ welfare or, for that matter, to taxpayers who fund the cost of imprisonment. Once prison time has been served, punishment ends and all debts are deemed to have been paid. True, a victim might be compensated from a victim-of-crime fund, but that money comes from the blameless. In essence, we, the law-abiding citizens, are paying the criminal’s debts. This on top of the cost of maintaining criminals in our prison, which is drawn from the same source.
It is my contention that one of the best ways to impose effective limits on violent crime, short of corporal or capital punishment, is the imposition of the monetary penalties on the criminal. It is quite simply wrong, morally and ethically, to invoice third-party innocents — taxpayers, in other words — for the cost of crimes for which they are in no way responsible.
The presently popular system of ‘user pays’, supported by the near universal computerisation, could and should change the situation of the financial near-impunity of violent criminals, especially for the first-time offenders and those who are genuinely remorseful. Prospectively, this measure can serve as an alternative to incarceration, relieve jail overcrowding, reduce tax dollar spending and reduce recidivism.
The necessity to pay from legitimately earned funds the cost of their prison upkeep, plus what might be termed ‘remorse stipends’ to their victims could be decisive in discouraging re-offending. First, it might reduce the temptation to commit crimes in the first place. Second, the obligation to cover ‘remorse fund’ obligations will oblige criminals to seek legitimate on-the-books employment, which will itself help to keep them away from mischief. This is where prison or community-based rehabilitation programs should be effectively preparing offenders to earn money upon release, a court-mandated proportion of their earnings earmarked for making whole victims and the taxpayers alike.
Accept as a given that most hardened criminals do not pay taxes or work in legitimate occupations. However, many do collect welfare benefits. They do get enrolled in Medicare. They do send their children to state schools. They do use public hospitals. Therefore we are in a position to say ‘It’s your choice, mate: use civilised society’s resources or commit crimes, but not both. If you wish to use our resources, you will have to settle your debts to us. This includes compensating your victims and paying off what it cost to feed, keep and guard you while being detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure, even if only partially. Nothing brings the realisation that an action has consequences more pointedly than the inevitability of chickens coming home to roost.
The most serious argument against what I am proposing is that it would constitute a breach of such individuals’ human rights. Indeed, or so the argument might be framed, the very humanity of our society is attested by its treatment of minorities, mental health patients, elderly, children and, yes, prisoners. Therefore, anything other than and beyond the present system contradicts the foundational cornerstone of liberal democratic society. In this I beg to differ. Violent criminals’ violation and denial of their victims’ rights abrogates the entitlement to equal treatment with non-offenders. Anyway, we already imprison criminals, thus curtailing their right to freedom and pursuit of happiness. Why not be consistent and follow this pathway to its logical conclusion by demanding financial restitution in full or in part?
We can start with our courts sentencing violent criminals not only to imprisonment but also to an obligatory payment of a certain, legitimately earned sum to be paid to the victim(s) and/or the State. In so doing we can make sure that commission of violent crimes is personally expensive, ideally prohibitively so. Via sky-high sales taxes we make smokers pay for the costs they impose on the health system. Why should criminality be exempted from the same philosophy that makes nicotine addicts liable? The short answer: it shouldn’t.
Dr Michael Galak and his family came to Australia as refugees from the Soviet Union in 1978. He wishes to thank the IPA’s Andrew Bushnell for his generous assistance