We think we know when a sentence is too lenient. And sometimes (less often maybe) the news draws our attention to a case where the punishment looks like it may be too much. But what would be ‘the right’ sentence and how should we think about a question like that?
Imagine a robbery from a vulnerable victim. A fine doesn’t seem to be right. Perhaps the offender should go to prison. But for how long? Six months? One year? Five years? Ten years? And now it looks as if it might be becoming too tough a punishment. Most people will think that it depends. But what does it depend on?
One thing most of us feel is that justice requires that more serious offences are punished more severely than lighter ones. So you can’t give everyone a maximum or minimum penalty (whatever that is) because this would cause problems when deciding on worse or not-so-serious crimes.
Perhaps the most important thing to consider is the harm that has been done – not just amounts of money or, in other cases, the degree of injury, but also psychological pains. For example, being thrown to the ground could be a life-changing experience for someone, leaving them frightened to go out or even unsure about living alone. And in thinking about the harm of a property crime, the value of the theft seems to make a difference, but the loss of a sum of money that might be nothing much at all to some individuals or to a business might be disastrous for some people. So maybe the first consideration is harm.