Ethics of Crime and Punishment


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In England and Wales there were 618,000 recorded ‘violence against the person’ crimes which caused injury in 2015. In 2007 the estimated prison population in England and Wales was 80,000, which means every 100,000 people 149 of those are in jail, which is a little higher than the Eu average (123).

According to the human rights act of 1998, Article 6 states that “everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing within a reasonable time by an independent and impartial tribunal established by law.” So all those 80,000 people incarcerated were given a trail and were sentenced accordingly based on their crime.

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The U.K and U.S judiciary system, is democratic and requires an unbiased jury and judge. The be sentenced substantial evidence should be required and an evaluation of the witness.

While this is often the case, the system can fail, jurys can biased, evidence could be tampered, and not all lawyers are equal. Everyone in the U.K and U.S is entitled to a lawyer yet not every lawyer will have the same skill level, leaving those who are rich acquitted of their crimes, and poorer, more underprivileged, sentenced.

In 1997, seventeen year old Ryan Matthews was charged with the murder of a local shopkeeper in Bridge City, Louisiana, USA. The murderer wore a ski mask and was described as short by 3 witnesses. Ryan was 6 feet tall and no forensic evidence linked him to the ski mask.

Matthews was poor, black, and had learning difficulties; he already faced constant barriers, but at his trial in May 1999 his court appointed lawyer was unprepared and did not even understand DNA evidence. 11 of the 12 jurors were white, despite being in an area with a predominantly black community. Within three days of trial Ryan was declared guilty and issued the death penalty.

Luckily in 2004 a new trial was arranged and Ryan was exonerated. However this shows the adamant bias in the judiciary system. How can it be a fair trial if the defendant’s lawyer and the prosecutor’s lawyer are not equal. Granted it would be almost impossible for every lawyer to be of equal skill and would cause an endless number of problems, but it still asks the question why a court appointed lawyer didn’t understand DNA evidence.

Often the image of a defence lawyer brings about the image of someone defending a criminal, someone already convicted with skewed morals and violence tendencies. If I’m completely honest at first this was the first image my mind conjured up. In most movies the defence attorneys are the antagonist, the villain. Unless of course the protagonist is wrongly convicted of a crime and so the prosecutor is the antagonist.

This also proves the point that perspective is everything, but also asks when is defending someone morally wrong? In the case of this example, a lawyer defending their client, the first obvious answer is if the client is innocent, if the person has done no harm it is morally right for you to defend them.

Now this seems very clean cut, but this avoids the very real fact that there is no way to know if the client is innocent or not, and in most cases the question of their innocence is one most defence lawyers avoid asking. Say even if they did know, say Sam has been arrested for stealing a watch from a shop, Sam admits this to his Lawyer, Sam’s lawyer realises that the shop’s security tape is fuzzy and essentially useless in a court of law, Sam’s lawyer can use this fact to argue for Sam’s acquittal. Regardless of what Sam has done he is not legally guilty unless the prosecutor can prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. Sam’s lawyer cannot ethically state that Sam didn’t do it only that the D.A cannot prove that same did do it.

This all causes the line between ethical and unethical to become very fine, and questions why there is a difference between factual guilt and legal guilt. The difference causes guilty criminals to be acquitted despite what they have done. It can be confusing why someone would ever defend someone who has admitted to their guilt, who could become a Defense attorney with a clear conscience? If attorneys were able to come forward and confirm a client’s guilt based on a conversation the judiciary system would be a lot more accurate.

Or so it would in theory. Attorney-client privilege refers to a legal privilege that works to keep confidential communications between an attorney and his or her client secret. If we go back to Sam’s example, all legal advice Sam asks for, on any advice is given is bound to secrecy so that Sam is not in fear or his secrets being used against them his will.

The question is, is this ethically correct. Attorney-Client privilege could be seen as legal perversion of the cause of justice. This essentially means they are withholding information from the police. How could anyone consider this morally right? At what point must citizens quality of life become more important than the trust of a defendant.

If a lawyer is aware of a client’s guilt of a murder, and still defends them in court, then upon their acquittal, they go and kill another person, can the lawyer be considered at fault for this crime.

Response one could be: Yes they are, they were aware that the client wasn’t innocent, and still defended them. The lawyer could have prevented the murder. Even if they couldn’t break their attorney-client privilege, they could’ve chosen not to represent them in court, giving the possibility that the client would gain a less skilled lawyer and be incarcerated avoiding the second murder,

Another reaction however is that: No the attorney is not at fault and the murder cannot be blamed on them, As their are just doing their job. If the D.A cannot prove their legal guilt, unless the client testifies and confesses then there is no sustainable reason for the client to be convicted that would uphold in court. If we took out the element of the prosecutor being forced to prove the client’s guilt the legal system would collapse. If we based the legal system on confessions to attorneys, no one would confess and this would lead to coerced confessions. It could be possible that attorneys only break their privilege rarely in extreme cases, but that would lead to the question of when and how often attorneys should come forward. Clients would always be in fear of their secrets being used against them meaning they wouldn’t get as good representation and wouldn’t ask for legal advice. At first this can be perceived as a good thing, guilty people will have more of a chance of being incarcerated, but this would prevent innocent people who may have panicked about their alibi or something similar needed legal advice but be afraid to get it in fear that their lawyer would think them guilty.

Another problem with this is confessions to lawyers may not always be truthful. Some confessions could be false and only given to ensure the safety of someone else who actually committed the crime.

Going back to the example, you could argue that even if the client was imprisoned you have no guarantee he wouldn’t murder someone in prison, in fact it could become even more likely. There’s the argument that if he is acquitted, he would be murdering an innocent person but in jail it would be a convicted criminal. However you can’t say that one life is worth more than another based on their actions and both are just as terrible as each other.

Even if the attorney did refuse to represent the client there’s no saying that another lawyer wouldn’t defend them and help him be freed. However in most cases the argument “if I don’t do it someone else will” is a rather weak one, if using utilitarianism, a family of consequentialist ethical theories that promotes actions that maximize happiness and well-being for the majority of a population. Whoever defends him does not matter as the result is still the same.

However, if you believe the intention of the action is more important than the consequence, the lawyer is thereby in the wrong and to spare their conscience, they should do their best to prevent suffering by imprisoning the client. But, breaking the attorney client privilege involves breaking a promise which is considered ethically wrong, even if the intention is to do good. So then, the lawyer must step aside and refuse to take the client’s case. This would leave them with a clear conscience and makes better morally.

On the other hand, for them to step aside, another lawyer would have to take their case, and chances are they would be put in the same situation, even if they made the same decision, at some point a lawyer must come along and have to take this case, since the original lawyer did not take the case. Because of the original lawyers actions, now the successor has to take the case and now that will rest on their conscience and put them through suffering when having to decide. Even with good intentions, it still causes suffering.

One piece of the justice system that has caused debates for decades is the death penalty, when the government takes a person’s life as punishment for a wrongdoing. Supporters of capital punishment say that governments should keep the death penalty as it’s the only appropriate punishment for certain crimes. It could stop future crimes by executing offenders so they can’t repeat the crime and deters other possible offenders from committing the crime out of fear making an overall safer society.

On the other hand, The death penalty could be seen as state sponsored killing and cannot be a part of modern society. It can be seen as a cruel punishment that is often discriminatory and is subject to error that cannot be erased.

One of the strongest arguments against the death penalty is fear that the guilty is actually innocent as after the sentence is passed there is no reversing it.

In 1950, Timothy Evans was hanged in London for the murder of his child. Evans had learning difficulties and confessed easily under heavy police pressure. He made and retracted several confessions of guilt before he was hanged. However afterwards new evidence emerged that showed that the murder was actually committed by Evans’ neighbour John Christie. This miscarriage of justice contributed heavily to the abolition of capital punishment in the U.K in 1965.

There are multiple reasons for the miscarriage of justice. Confused and scared people might make fake confessions, be coerced or even have evidence planted on them. Some may not understand what is happening, especially if they are young or uneducated. There’s also the possibility of having an inexperienced lawyer who gives them bad advice and caused them to plead guilty. They may face a judge who does not conduct the trial well, or a prejudiced jury or one that doesn’t understand evidence. These shouldn’t happen in a good legal system but they do, especially if the defendant is poor, and without access to a good lawyer.

Supporters of the death penalty say that the vast majority of those executed are guilty and that many pleas of innocence are false, others go further by saying that the small number of innocent people killed is a small price to pay for the benefit of removing guilty from society, as this is the price of justice.

This argument shows an example of utilitarianism, a small number of people suffer but the majority are able to be safe. This is flawed however because of the fact that this involves ending the life of an innocent person, which is generally seen as ethically wrong. If we begin to build our society based on sacrifices so others can live in peace we begin to become closer to a dystopian society.

In the U.S.A the overwhelming majority of those sentenced to death are poor and badly educated. Many belong to ethnic, racial or other minorities. These groups are more likely to undergo an unfair trial with a biased jury.

Under U.S law some jurors can be rejected if they hold prejudiced views or attitudes that may affect their judgment, even though the race of a juror is not supposed to be taken into account, many black jurors are excluded from cases where the prisoner is black, even in an area with the majority of the population being black.

Many argue that there is no way for the killing of a citizen to be humane, the U.S has put in great efforts to make the execution as painless as possible however execution can go wrong- electricity burns the victim and lethal injections can fail. Due to the fact that doctors can “do no harm” they cannot deliver Lethal injections. This leaves guards or technicians to find a suitable vein. This can be done poorly resulting in prolonged suffering. In Ohio in May 2006 Joseph Clark took 90 minutes to die after two botched attempts to find a vein.

In the intention of the death penalty is to make society safer, which is ethically good, but it also depends how successful this is. It removes dangerous criminals from the streets permanently which all together makes society safer. On the other hand, life imprisonment does the same thing, and imprisonment allows convicts to reform their life and even do good. Stanley Williams, a former gang leader wrote a series of books urging young people not to get involved in gangs, drugs and crime.

Another common argument is that capital punishment is a deterrent – people are less likely to commit a crime if they could be executed for it. It is difficult to measure the affect of the death penalty as a deterrent, but logically it should work. Others argue that motives for murder are often not rational and are committed by those who are influenced by drink or drugs.

All of this accumulates to a justice system in a morally grey area. 

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