Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics


… says rich journalist/politician-felon Chris Huhne in the Guardian.

Just in case you haven’t been following this, Andy Coulson masterminded a criminal conspiracy to eavesdrop on private conversations and bribe public officials. His minions basically vandalised a police investigation into the murder of a 13-year-old. Now, his culpability as director of the operation has been difficult to establish in court, so unlike those minions he has been convicted only on a single relatively minor charge. He has been sentenced to just 18 months in prison, of which he will likely only serve one quarter.

But Huhne thinks the fact that the sentence is so short proves that he shouldn’t go to prison at all. He compares current penal practice to “the 1723 Black Act, which introduced 50 new hanging offences, including one for “hiding in a forest while disguised”.” He seems to think that the only proper purpose of prison is to restrain violent criminals. The rest is just playing to the tabloid-aroused bloodlust of the crowd. It’s one thing to lock up the evil people — BBC star pedophile Rolf Harris is his favoured example — but normal upstanding rich people like Coulson (and, by implication, Huhne himself) are much more useful on the outside. Merely being labelled criminals is enough suffering for their tender egos, unlike the hardened chavs who need to be sent to prison for looting a bottle of water, or receiving a single pair of looted underpants from a friend.

It’s depressing to be reminded of how primitive the thinking often is of people at the highest levels of government. Philosophers have been puzzling over the multiple overlapping and mutually contradictory purposes of state punishment for at least a couple of millennia. There’s restraint, deterrence, revenge, symbolic affirmation of social order. I would be inclined to say that our society allows the wealthy and well-connected an extraordinary degree of freedom, the ability to buy their way out of everyday indignities, and never even see the less fortunate (cf. poor doors). Prison is the only place where the privileged are compelled to mingle with their peers by moral stature, rather than financial. There is no more symbolically appropriate punishment for those who have abused their privilege to commit crimes that wouldn’t even be accessible to those of lesser means.

As for Huhne’s caution that “Prison is a college for spreading best criminal practice,” well, we’ll just have to try to keep him away from expert phone hackers.

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