Below, Mark makes the argument, which I agree with, for the merits of retribution as a justification for punishment. The argument comes out of a deep aspect of human moral psychology, which is the need for public recognition of injustice. Human beings who are wronged, whether in small or large ways, need those who have committed wrong against them to ackowledge that fact. Without that acknowledgement, the fact of injustice can haunt them, often leaving them damaged and self-destructive.
The importance of this public recognition–and the severity of punishment is the most important form of public recognition–was brought home to my while I’ve been here in Britain by the sentencing of three young men, Sajid Zulfiqar, 26, Zahid Bashir, 24, and Imran Maqsood, 22, for brutalling killing a man by kicking him in the head until every bone in his face was broken. They were given “life,” which is another way of saying 15 years. Despite the fact that there was some indication of racial motivation (the victim was white), the judge refused to sentence them to the thirty years that “racial motivation” would have gotten them. I’m somewhat ambivalent about the idea of higher sentencing for “racially motivated crimes,” but I recognize the reason for it–but it isn’t the damage to the victim, it’s the danger to society, given that a crime done with an explicit racial motivation is intended to intimidate a larger group, not simply harm a discrete person. That said, the very real disappointment of the victim’s family was hard to get around. 15 years in prison just seems a mockery when placed beside the incredible brutality of the crime, and the genuine derangment that could produce it. I wonder how the victim’s family and friends will be able to move on, or whether they’ll be followed around by the thought that, in some ways, his killers got off, and that the balance of justice in the world is just askew.