Harriet Harman, a minister in the Department for Constitutional Affairs in the UK, plans to introduce a system of victims' advocates in homicide trials.
The advocate would address the judge, after conviction but before sentence, on the impact that the crime has had on relatives. He or she might be an advocate reading out a statement written by relatives, or actually be one of them.
The clear purpose is to increase the severity of sentences. Before deciding the sentence for those guilty of manslaughter, or setting the minimum term for those guilty of murder, the judge will hear an unopposed account of how terribly relatives and friends have been affected by the killing of their loved one. Often it will be given by a tearful member of the relevant family. What other effect can be expected of this?
It is of course true that the needs of victims should be considered in the justice system. Retribution is one of the legitimate purposes of imprisonment, along with punishment, rehabilitation and protection of the public.
Under the status quo, society takes on the role of executing the responsibility of acknowledging the results of crime on its victims in sentencing on their behalf. This is to be preferred to the Harman plan, because of the lack of perspective those victims have.
Proportionality is vital. Naturally, victims lack a sense of proportion and a sense of perspective. They are generally unable sufficiently to appreciate the weighing up of guilt alongside mitigating factors, or understand the advantages involved for the justice system in giving credit for early pleas or other co-operation.
Therefore, the decision about how the guilty should be punished is taken away from the friends and family involved, for that is the false justice of vigilantism. Instead, it is taken by all of us, by society as a whole, with the courts delegated as experts to carry out this business on our behalf. This is the true justice of the rule of law.
The irony is that for years, sentencing has been too lenient in this country. The result has been a loss of faith in the criminal justice system, and widespread outrage among the victims of crime. But the solution to this is to give more sentencing powers to judges and higher minimum sentences - not to allow the bereaved this kind of role in our courts.
The UK Labour Government has killed with kindness: naïve sentimentality about the motivation of criminals, whom they sought always to understand and never to condemn, undermined the proper functioning of a system, and now it grasps at populist extremism to correct the problem they’ve created. The rule of law suffers a perilous existence under this government - as has been demonstrated again and again.
In one of my favourite bits of The West Wing Leo McGarry talks about how his daughter names the fish in a seafood restaurant’s tank. The result is that, now vested with individual personality, he can’t eat them.
Justice must not be swayed in this manner. It must remain dispassionate, handing down punishment on the basis that a crime has been committed, not because the relatives concerned put on a good show. Sentencing should not turn on whether the victim was married to one who keeps a stiff upper lip or one who weeps.
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