Thursday, July 28, 2011

Crime and Punishment in re Breivik: What about Vengeance?

How much jail time can Anders Breivik expect to get under Norwegian law? This is an obvious question for most people in the aftermath of the horrific killings in Norway. The answer: a maximum of 21 years.

Does this punishment fit the crime? Is Norwegian justice too soft? For those used to the U.S. justice system, the maximum jail term of 21 years for such a horrific act seems incredibly low. Even Bernie Madoff who did not kill anyone got a longer sentence. As did Jeffrey Skilling of Enron, who also did not kill a single person. Norwegians are also raising questions about the adequacy of such low sentences for such crimes as this USA Today article reports: Anti-Breivik Facebook groups have appeared such as Anders Behring Breivik Haters and Hang Anders Behring Breivik. One group asked members to vote on whether Norway should reintroduce capital punishment, abolished for civilian crimes in 1902 and banned completely in 1988 ... 71,000 of 97,000 members replied no.

A New York Times op-ed contrasts the Norwegian situation with U.S. style justice and makes the case for vengeance, implying that Norway's legal system ignores this basic human instinct: "... how different is revenge from justice, really? Every legal system, however dispassionate and procedural, must still pass the gut test of seeming morally just; and revenge must always be just and proportionate. That is what the biblical phrase “eye for an eye” means. Justice requires that no less than an eye can be taken in retaliation for a lost eye, but no more than an eye either."

I am not too sure about the need to incorporate vengeance into the sentencing system. For starters vengeful feelings are extremely variable (across time, religion, gender, ethnicity, socialization etc) and even accommodating the vengeful feelings of those at the mid-point of the spectrum could take us to a pre-modern system that might prove extremely barbaric.

But is the 21 year prison term too low on other grounds? The deterrence argument that is mentioned in the USA Today article by a Norwegian lawyer is pretty weak. But what about incapacitation as a justification for punishment? Breivik is young and the only way to ensure that he does not pose a further threat to society is to keep him permanently behind bars? 21 years might not be enough.