Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Politician, redeem thyself

The ECHR decided today that the whole life tariff without possibility of parole breached Human Rights legislation. Some people don't agree.

Well, either we believe in the possibility of redemption, or we don't. 

If we don't then whether someone has stolen a sweet from the pick and mix at the 99p shop or they've stabbed their mother to death with a toothpick, we should remove them from society forthwith and for good. After all, they'll never learn their lesson. They will never realise that what they did was wrong. If released, the sweet thief will go to bigger and more audacious crimes (an apple from a fruit stall, 5 litres of unleaded from an unguarded pump, the odd bout of brutal serial killing) while the Toothpick Stabber of Tatenham Corner will carry out a bloody coup of Brussels and instigate World War III. 

If we do, however, believe in redemption, then the opportunity surely must apply to all. The punishment may differ, the length of time before someone will be believed, the hoops through which we'll expect them to jump, may change depending on the perceived severity of the crime, but how can we say that any one crime is so severe, so beyond the pale, so depraved, abhorrent or evil that there is no possibility whatsoever of coming back from it?

The justice system has never been simply about punishment. The justice system has always served multiple purposes, and has always had three important limbs. The first is punishment, certainly. Society needs retribution, a feeling that justice has been exacted, a way for victims to feel that in some way the balance has been redressed. And we also need the second limb, protection. Sometimes punishing the Slasher of Southampton isn't enough, we need to remove him from society until he ceases to pose a danger. And then there's the third limb, redemption, a way to help those who commit crimes to see the error of their ways and to show them how to become useful members of society again. A justice system that only does one or two of these things is a system that will do nothing but fill our prisons with rotting meat.

Chris Grayling, our esteemed Justice Secretary, believes that some people are inherently evil. That they are so evil, that the justice system need only be used for two of the three limbs: punishment and protection. The third, redemption, is unnecessary. Otiose, if you like, pointless. The Toothpick Stabber is so very bad that he can't possibly ever be genuinely sorry for what he's done. And frankly, even of he is, well...tough. What the Toothpick Stabber did was so very bad that he should never be given the opportunity. See this key? Chuck it in the sea, it won't be needed again.

If you happen to believe in absolute good and absolute evil then perhaps this view makes sense to you. But even the most violent and unpleasant religions (I'm looking at you Catholicism) preach the redemptive power of forgiveness. The eye for an eye contempt for which Chris Grayling appears to hold his fellow man is Old Testament rhetoric, swept away - if you believe in this sort of thing - by the rather more hippy like anni domini. 

Now, alright, we all know that Mr Grayling has an eye on the politics here. He is, after all, a politician whose first love is re-election. If that means toadying up to the Daily Mail harbingers of hate, then so be it. The 'really evil' comment, seen in that light, is nothing more than an attempt at hogging the limelight for a few precious seconds, a soundbite to ensure mention on the 10 o'clock news. His desire to see the ECHR relieved of its powers - as likely as Chris Grayling getting any further with his political career - a call to arms to the rightwing press, irrespective of whether he actually believes the nonsense he spouts. 

But. But, but, but. What's wrong with our political system that talking such crap is seen as a necessary part of it? Why do so few of us vote? Well, let's start with Chris Grayling and go from there.