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Why Do We Punish Criminals?

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The connotation behind the word “criminal” has progressed as society has too. ‘Criminal’ used to and still does refer to those who performed inexcusable acts of legally unethical sin. However, it seemed one could be punished centuries ago for factors such as their race, religion (or lack of it), or sexuality. Yet, in our modern and more tolerant age, we labels “criminals” as those who are prosecuted for purposefully performed wrongful acts to others. For this reason, one may argue that the reason for punishment of criminals has evolved from wanting to establish and maintain a societal normality, to protecting the safety of citizens. However, is this all? When analysing the reformation of prison institutions where said criminals are sent and are educated, certain changes promote the idea of a more tolerant and integrated society not just in terms of minorities, but for criminals too.

To assess why we punish criminals, one must recede back in history to past treatments of criminals. Taking the example of heretics centuries ago in England, many (such as Jacques de Molay) were often executed for not following the Roman Catholic religion. And yet, the reign of Henry VIII changed this; the English Reformation made it acceptable for supposed “heretics” to free themselves from the perceived restraints of religion. Essentially, the Treason Act of 1534 declared it treason to simply refer to the king as “heretic” in reference to the Break with Rome. Thus, a prime example is shown of the subjectivity and perhaps, logical fallacy of the connotations associated with criminals. First, “criminals” were punished for not conforming to the normalities of religion, and then a new figure in power allowed the meaning of the word to become someone who rejected changes being made to said normalities. Furthermore, The Ancient Greek Philosopher, Socrates, was punished by being stoned to death for his outlook on the fragility of empirical knowledge. Instead, he promoted epistemology through a priori thinking. Of course, these ideas were foreign to a strictly religious society, hence why Socrates revelation that he truly knew “nothing”, and that neither did any human, insulted authorities to the extreme as they believed his ideas needed to be shunned. Here, a clear pattern of punishment due to scepticism of certain religious beliefs seems to be a prominent reason for the punishment of criminals; criminals being the non-believers or “heretics”. Yet, when contrasting this to our modern world, although religion is more relative and less restrained, it seems criminals do get punished for their beliefs; or better yet, how they perceive these beliefs. Take the idea of the Christian Underwear Bomber in 2009 who took the lives of many innocent people because it was the “will of God”, or the more recent situation of the Islamic State; targeting the lives of thousands in the name of extremist religious beliefs. These groups of people (once caught and prosecuted) are punished for their distorted views which allowed then to take the lives of many unfairly. Thus, we punish criminals to not only protect our citizens from the extremist beliefs of these groups, but to instil the objective truth of what is morally right and wrong. The idea of killing for religion is highly teleological with the aim of receiving rewards in an afterlife, and we punish criminals to allow them to be more aware and present in this life, on this earth, at this time. The viewpoint that one may victimise others for the will of a higher authority is highly detrimental to our society, as what it results in is the innocent being targeted as a means to an end. Therefore, the punishment of criminals is to reinforce the value of life, and through a method commonly known as Incapacitation, by taking away the freedom of the criminal, not just their personal freedom, but the freedom to commit crimes again, thus protecting ourselves from being vulnerable preys of crime.

Alternatively, punishment could be viewed as a highly psychological method; take ones freedom away, so that they may slowly come to the realisation that life is precious and fragile, so it must be treated as such. By proving that actions do have consequences, the authorities that enforce punishments are acting as an aggregate parent to society, and so in turn, deterring others from engaging in potential future crimes. Why do we want life to be respected? Well, some may link this to religion and beliefs of a purposeful creation, yet as aforementioned, the tolerance of society somehow correlates to the decline of religion and faith, hence why there is uncertainty about life after death. Apart from terrorism, criminals are also punished for putting others’ life in danger through murder, rape, burglary etc. Reason and our capacity to be rational creatures at the top of the food chain makes us inclined to pursue our survival, hence why we subconsciously try to preserve this survival, through taking away the freedom and punishing in anger of those who threaten our survival. Hence, Self-preservation is key to the reason for punishment. Although an average citizen not personally involved in the law enforcement system, “we” as a society feel a sense of safety and perhaps even successful revenge when the ‘bad guy’ as though in a resolved movie, get what they deserve. Thus, we punish crime for self-preservation and resolution.

Indeed, one is inclined to allude to the more humanist as well as economic reasons for the punishment of crimes, especially after recent prison reforms. Crimes are often committed due to psychological reasons, drugs, or alcohol abuse. The position of Michael Gove as Secretary of State from 2009 to 2014 and his beliefs made a point of the danger of polarising criminals in society. Claiming “hope is at the heart” of his prison reforms, Gove highlighted the danger of prisons being used to isolate criminals from society rather than integrating them, as isolation is another primary cause for crime levels. Said integration is performed through the usual counselling, drug treatment and vocational training. However, the importance of an included progressive education is vital in reinforcing the idea of punishment as not just being for the sake of the safety of society from potentially repetitive predators, but so that criminals may be guided from their violent or downward spiralling ways. The cost of imprisoning one person per year in the UK totals to approximately £40,000. Such a substantial amount should vitally be used to prevent chances of reoffending for long term sustainability. After leaving prison, many criminals are unlikely to get jobs due to not just a criminal record but lack of skills. Reasons such are this are partly the reason why 46% of adults were reconvicted within a year as results showed in 2014. However, by approaching punishment with a more humanist method of preparing these criminals for life after prison, we are increasing the possibility that they will not go back to their old lifestyles of committing crimes against society. Instead, they are preoccupied with education, which in turn will allow them to be more informed on the society they live in, as well as increasing the possibility of them getting a job, thus stimulating the economy so that through reformed prisons, they may reform their lifestyles. By preventing them from reoffending, we are limiting the costs of prisons, as the cost of imprisoning those who offended from 2007 to 2008 was around £13 billion, a number that has gone down since prison reforms. Therefore, we punish crimes so that confining criminals into an environment where they are amongst those with similar offences, thus already giving them a sense of society, and positively using this to the advantage of preoccupying them with non-offensive and instead helpful ways of integrating with the world outside of them. The hope is that by providing criminals with factors which caused them to commit the crimes in the first place, such as education, we are preventing them from going back to that lifestyle, and instead stimulating the economy as well as providing them with long term goals for the future; a method of reconciling and integrating society for the greater good.

Moreover, crime punishment has progressed over time in terms of the groups of people it benefits. In the past, crimes were punished to enforce normality in societal standards and prevent rebellious characters. Similarly to the present, it is also enforced for self-preservation through assuring the safety of society by physically isolating criminals from a vulnerable, unsuspecting, and in many ways, defenceless society. However, within our modern age, it seems influences such as Gove have adopted a more humanist method to crime punishment in order to psychotically integrate criminals into society to stimulate the economy in practice, but more importantly, prevent past habits reoccurring by preoccupying those who have committed crimes with more positive, peaceful and less violent goals for the future. Thus, by evaluation of the aforementioned reasons, it seems we punish criminals to preserve our vulnerable humanity.

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Recent Case of Charlie Gard – Who Knows Best?

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doctors vs judges

The recent Charlie Gard case that has flooded international news is characteristic of the intricate, global controversy: who has the right over life?

Infant Charlie Gard was born with an extremely rare genetic defect known as MDDS, which irreversibly deteriorated his condition to severe brain damage, immobility, deafness and ventilation by artificial means alone. Established under The Children Act 1989, institutional authorities (hospitals, governments) were assigned with giving the final decision on whether a young patient could live, designed to safeguard parents from protecting their own needs rather than what was best for their child.

Whilst Charlie’s parents wanted their precious child to live, all courts of appellate jurisdiction, along with the doctors at Great Ormond Street Hospital, at which Charlie was kept on the life support, thought it was in Charlie’s best interests to end his life rather than allow his quality of life to be irrevocably poor.

So, who should we trust to give the final say about a child’s well-being? Should families, who have given birth to the child, their possession, be given the legal responsibility to overrule the state in their decision? Of course, this brings moral implications, such that the parents would not want to say goodbye to their child and therefore not act in his/her’s best interests.

Let’s now bring in another scenario, whereby the patient is of adult age. Tony Bland sustained detrimental injuries from the Hillsborough Disaster in 1989, which left him in a permanent vegetative state (PVS) until his death in 1993. It was eventually ruled in the House of Lords that the Artificial Nutrition and Hydration (ANH), that was prolonging him living, should end to allow Bland to “die in dignity” (Court order). This case differs from the Charlie Gard case as both the parents and the doctors thought withdrawing ANH was in Tony’s best interests.

Despite differences, the Bland case elucidates the complexity involved in euthanasia cases in the UK. Was it morally right for the state to prevent Gard’s parents from allowing experimental treatment to be made in the hope of keeping their son alive, despite his physical and mental state? Was it morally right for the court to give consent to the withdrawal of ANH and allow Tony to die? How would the result differ if it was unsure how long he would be in a vegetative state for?

Let us assess one last scenario. Terminally ill man Noel Conway, aged 67, launched a legal challenge for his own right to die. He was diagnosed with motor neurone disease, which has meant his ability to move, dress, eat and even breathe has irrevocably diminished. Noel condemned Section 2(1) of the Suicide Act 1961, which prohibited assisted suicide (voluntary euthanasia) under UK law, outlining his deteriorating quality of life and the prospect of “unimaginable suffering”. As he strongly remarks, “Current law means that I will have no control of how my life ends”.

We are once again asking ourselves where ultimate authority lies in determining the end of one’s life. This global complexity should never be looked on lightly and all cases of similar note should be looked at distinctly and intricately.

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Legal Reform: Social Norms and Technology

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In the same way that photoreceptors in your eye respond to light, law responds to the stimulus of social pressure and technological advances. Take smoking as a first example. Rising drastically during the First and Second World War, the number of adults smoking cigarettes by 1949 amounted to approximately 81% of the male population and 39% of the female population. In the mid-20th century, smoking was seen as a social norm, with many advertisements oblivious to the health detriments caused by smoking. Notable slogans claimed fabricated benefits: “for digestion’s sake”, “a feeling of well-being”, and “throat protection against cough irritation”.

It was not until a 1950 report published in the British Medical Journal that evidential research was found, linking smoking with the formation of lung cancer. This was the first of a chain of research that changed the way both doctors and the public viewed smoking, resulting in social pressure for legal reform, in which the government was forced to respond to. In 1965, a ban on television cigarette advertisement was implemented, progressing to a complete advertisement ban in 2005 and most significantly an end to smoking in public was enforced in July 2007. More recently, the debate over cannabis legislation is a hot topic for future debate, with 26 US states currently legalising marijuana in some form. As scientific research progresses in this field of study, perhaps society’s attitudes towards cannabis may change, prompting further legal reform.

New crimes were necessary as computing became more prominent towards the end of the 20th century. The Computer Misuse Act 1990 served as a response to the rise in cyber-crime, most significantly hacking. Further legislation brought in targeted identity fraud and harassment over the web, encompassing cyber-bullying although it has no specific mention. Moreover, the development of cars and their sudden surge in frequency led to more common traffic accidents. Subsequently, laws were implemented to make driving on the roads a safer experience, with drink driving, mobile phone usage, and speeding all becoming new additions to criminal law in the UK.

To conclude, law has successfully evolved in line with social norms and technological developments in order to protect society and respond to pressure from reformist groups. It is vital that the law regularly adapts to modernisation, to prevent a backwards legal system and to protected the welfare of the majority.

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After Taiwan, What’s Next For Asia?

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LGBT rights in Asia

T​aiwan has long been home to Asia’s most spirited LGBT communities, with the hashtag #TaiwanGayMarriageLegalization attracting over 11 million views on China’s Weibo. The country ​has recently joined the United States, Canada and 18 others to rule in favor towards ​constitutional protection of same-sex marriage. But the question of what it symbolises in Asia remains unresolved.

If the law functions to balance the need for stability with the demand for progress, Taiwan’s ​announcement from May acts as a positive testament. The decision favoring constitutional protection confirms growing momentum in the country, where child adoption by unmarried same-sex couples is becoming increasingly popular. Yet until the legislation was passed, only one individual can be recognised as a legal guardian. A condensed look reveals that legalising marriage is bound to cultural and political acceptance more deeply than economic concerns. It implies that the parliament has two years to amend laws regarding same-sex marriages. If not, couples will be permitted to register under the current framework. Both mothers or fathers of the adopted child could be entitled to equal welfare and property benefits.

Around the world, controversies surrounding alternative ideas from LGBT to the businesses of Uber and AirBnB have demonstrated the difficulty of balance. Taiwan’s ruling is undoubtedly a landmark for changing attitudes in Asia, but what does it signify for the rest of the hemisphere, where responses to minority cultural views remain conservative? Although attitudes to homosexuality were relatively liberal during the imperial times in mainland China, the ​Communist revolution in 1949 led to more cautious attitudes. Despite having it removed from the list of “mental disorders” in 2001, the stigma remains. Naturally, responses from China have been two-folded. Some are excited by the milestone, but others remain disheartened to the possibility of achieving legislative change. While many were still rejoicing shortly after the Taiwanese ruling, China’s most iconic lesbian socialising platform ‘Rela’ was shut down without explanation.

Likewise, although LGBT is not prohibited in the South Korean constitution, many remain closeted due to pressure from cultural traditions. But this is understandable, when some of the largest mobile corporations in the country have agreed to ​remove homosexual dating apps on the market, and a presidential candidate openly attacks gay soldiers for “weakening the country’s military.” Whether the rest of Asia could follow Taiwan’s footsteps as the social forerunner is still open to question, and it is certainly unjustified to generalise one of the largest and most diverse continents with a handful of examples. But one can be certain that ​LGBT continues to grow as an influential social dynamic in many Asian societies. ​Although t​he tug of war between traditional cultural views and changing public opinion will persist, ​Taiwan’s ruling could induce a chain effect in the long term.

When asking the youth “what do you dream of the world,” perhaps many would speak of tolerance. Such an abstract idea will undoubtedly carry a fluid definition, but obscurity is both its limitation and its beauty. The road to constitutional desegregation in the United states during in the 20th century was a difficult journey back and forth, and the same will go for LGBT in our time. But acceptance, before any legislative change is the first step that can go a long way. Regardless of whether one is in support of Taiwan’s ruling, it is an optimistic sign that ​societies are increasingly being warmed to the rights of gender and sexuality minorities through activism. It signifies not only acceptance of LGBT, but acceptance of cultural differences and their rights to equality before the law.

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