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Wrong on both counts

October 7, 2013 at 1:09 pm | News Desk

But secondly you say ‘society must exact vengeance, and society must punish’. Wrong on both counts. Vengeance comes from the individual and punishment from God.” __ Victor Hugo, The last days of a condemned man

Sabria Chowdhury Balland

Sabria Chowdhury Balland

The recent lifting of the moratorium on capital punishment in India is an eerie secrecy.  There has been a decision to hang the alleged perpetrator of human rights crimes in the liberation war of Bangladesh which has sparked incessant political unrest. The continual practices of executions in the United States just to name a few examples are only too reminiscent of the manner in which Anders Breivik, the Norwegian right wing extremist who was accused of killing 77 people in cold blood has been sentenced.

Breivik has been sentenced to 21 years (which can be extended) in prison in 2011. This fact alone has been a shocking blow to most people outside of Norway. In addition to what appears to be an extreme light sentence to say the least, those 21 years will hardly be spent in a harsh labour camp. He will spend his years in a three-room cell with a TV, exercise room and “Ikea-style furniture”.

If there are doubts and questions as to where lies the justice in the Norwegian penal system, and if such a sentencing is regarded as lax, what should be noted is that the justice system in Norway is just plain different and worth considering.  Sabaria article image 1

The American justice system like those of many in the Western world is based on the principles of retributive justice. In other words, it defines justice as appropriately punishing a person for an act which is harmful to society. This form of justice encompasses the ideas of incapacitating a criminal from committing other crimes, rehabilitating criminals to re-join society and deterring other potential criminals.

Therefore, retributive justice enforces rule of law, based on abstract ideas of morality and fairness.  Crimes are measured by their damage to society and the justice system delivers the appropriate punishment.

Justice in and of itself is regarded as valuable and not so necessarily for the deterrence effects.  In such a system, the punishment must fit the crime and 21 years in a comfortable apartment which can hardly be regarded as a prison cell hardly fits the crime of 77 premeditated murders.

It is unimaginably difficult to put oneself in the places of the families and friends of victims of criminal act but how justice can be regarded as delivered and closure obtained by the concepts of “an eye for an eye” is equally difficult to fathom.

To a stark contrast, the Norwegian, much studied justice system is based on the principles of restorative justice. It is a system based on healing for the victims, for society, and for the criminal. There is nothing in this system which particularly addresses the punishment of the criminal and on fact, even takes his or her needs into account.  sabaria image 3

Therefore, the concern for the victims and how to meet their needs is at the core of the restorative justice system. In the Breivik trial, this meant giving every victim and their families a direct voice.

Victims were individually represented by 174 court-appointed lawyers and the court heard 77 autopsy reports and long biographies voicing his or her unfulfilled ambition and dreams.

In an American trial of a similar crime in the retributive system, the trial is primarily about hearing about the case against the criminal. This also happens in Norway but with a softer approach. Space is given to the victims, not as evidence but to allow the trial to be like a forum for the victims to heal and to confront the person who has harmed them. The trial is thus not merely about proving or disproving guilt but of releasing the sufferings of the victims.  Sabaria image 2

This may seem too difficult to comprehend for most of us who are not in the least bit accustomed to this restorative style of justice, and no doubt, many disagree with it. However, what cannot and should not be ignored is the humane approach to a society’s dealing with not merely punishing criminals for their wrong doings but concentrating on healing them and fixing what is wrong to be able to allow them eventually to be respectable members of society.

If this sounds far too idealistic, it should be noted that not only does the Norwegian work; it does so with a very high rate of success. 80% of the criminals released from the Norwegian prison systems are able to successfully integrate back into society and stay away from committing crimes again. The picture in the United States is far from being as positive, not to mention that executions cost more than life in prison, the innocent maybe  and are only too often wrongly accused it is not a deterrent and crime rates have not decreased.

To quote President Jimmy Carter, the death penalty is “wasteful, immoral and discriminatory”.   The question of morality cannot be ignored. Simply put, killing is wrong and immoral. So, do two wrongs make a right?

The writer is an English and French professor and columnist residing in the USA and France. She can be reached at scballand@gmail.com

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