Friday, 25 June 2010

The foolishness of minimum sentences

One of claimed purposes of state punishment is deterrence. When the lawbreaker is sentenced a message is sent out to other potential lawbreakers. The sentence must be sufficiently severe to deter other lawbreakers.  This function has been used to justify minimum sentences - a legally specified minimum penalty that applies to all who break a specific law. One area where we have minimum statutory sentences is for gun crime.

However such sentences can result is grave miscarriages of justice.  Last week a 53 year old woman, Gail Cochrane, was sentenced to five years in prison for possession of a firearm. Five years is the minimum penalty for this case.  But look closer and you realise the stupidity of the law.

The gun in question is a 1927 Czech made Browning which her Father had brought back as a souvenir from the Second World War.  When he died she kept the gun. She had no ammunition for the gun and there was no evidence it had ever left her home.  Whilst it was a real gun it was also a family heirloom and without ammunition it was harmless. Yet the law is the law and Ms Cochrane is now serving five years in prison.

She is experience the pains of imprisonment to send out a message to who?  Middle aged women who have sentimentally failed to dispose of their father's souvenirs?  Or is it a case of politicians and the police claiming that this sort of thing shows how tough they are?  Whatever its both stupid and really unjust to Ms Cochrane.

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