Thursday, March 22, 2012

Long Time, Hard Time

Anecdotal -- but it seems that judges are handing out increasingly long sentences to parents who have killed their own children. Just yesterday the Osaka District Court upped the prison terms of a father and mother who killed their infant daughter from 10 years to 15 years (J). Last Friday, another Osaka court handed out a staggering 30-year prison term to a 24 year-old bar girl who abandoned her two children to starve to death in the family apartment (J).

I want the courts to be merciless with the killers of the children of others, for those that kill the children of others rob parents of life's only true treasures. However, persons killing their own children is almost always the result of families or individuals being under extraordinary stress. Judges should be taking circumstances into account, rather coming down with peculiarly arithmetic maximum sentences for these first-time offenders. In the first case mentioned, the baby, the family's third child, was killed out of a moment's rage at her not eating her food. In the second case, the young woman had only been recently divorced and was in retrospect overwhelmed by both her night work and childcare.

I can understand that society would have a vested interest in transmitting the message "Do not kill your kids." However, is it really necessary to deliver the message with a sledgehammer? Furthermore, is the judicial system the transmitter of choice?

6 comments:

Medea said...

I think that stronger sentences are more likely to send the message to people in stressful situations that this is not okay, rather than someone who is mentally unbalanced and not likely receptive of a message of right or wrong anyway.

That being said, I think it's interesting that at least in North America and Japan, women are more likely to be sentenced to longer times for crimes against their own family than men are. I think possibly it's because women are held to a higher standard in the first place (fair or not).

sigma1 said...

Er, I think if you consider children to be chattel and not potential life-livers of their own then perhaps you could make this argument. Otherwise what is the use of the "my child-your child" distinction here? A child is a child and robbing them of life, most would think, goes beyond normal human behaviour - irrespective of the circumstances.

To be sure underneath all of this there is the eternal debate about the purposes of a justice system. Is it to 'deter' through clearly communicating penalties on certain types of behaviour (ie assumption of rational actors)? To keep us safe from those who have already committed crimes and are likely, and perhaps irremediably,'deviant' (ie the state as protector)? To reassure us as to the distinction between "good" and "bad" people and social conventions thereunto related? To give a focus and outlet for societal anger and emotional sense of 'justice'? Actually it seems justice systems are all of the above, which becomes obvious once you start to poke around at the logic of why we sentence the way we do. One could say that the average person would consider the killing of one's own child a more serious 'crime' than killing others - and even less understandable for the reasons you have given. And since all of those roles are important to some degree for societal functioning, imperfect as some of them maybe in theory, I see no problem with the sentences.

canpin said...

I completely agree. There is also a trend - in Australia at least - for the courts to come down particularly hard on mothers who have killed their children, even though most have serious psychological issues at the time. This is to be contrasted with the (often lesser) sentences meted out to people - usually men - who abduct/abuse/rape/murder children.

I think this has something to do with Australia's very conservative society, such that women are still expected to be feminine and maternal (and in the kitchen), and to go against that is more repugnant to the national psyche than men simply "acting out" their aggression.

MTC said...

sigma1 -

In the United States, a child killer, that is to say a person who has killed a child other than his own, is at the very bottom of prison society. Indeed, it is very often the case that child killers do not live long enough to fulfill their sentences, other inmates seeing the killing of child killers as a badge of honor.

Another issue is what role society can and should play in protecting children. In the case of murderers of the children of others, there is almost nothing society can do, save urge parents to never let their children out of their sight. As for those who kill their own children, there are almost always danger signs and/or stressful conditions that society can atune itself to picking up, averting a tragedy.

Sigma1 said...

First a cheap shot - isn't the point that prisoners are not the moral conscience of society?

Second I don't think you addressed the main point of what I was saying. Children are not chattel and thus the deprivation of what minimal rights children have in our societies should not really have anything to do with what family you had the misfortune to be born into. I don't think you would argue against this but it needs to be said.

This is a more important distinction than just a philosophical one. The children as chattel implicit assumption is partially if not significantly responsible for the horrendous rates of child abuse in Western nations. In certain communities you can almost do what you want to your own child and even the police and our justice system, let alone the community seem to think domestic violence is somehow an almost victimless crime. This is an intensely personal issue for me and frankly it disgusts me that society operates, again implicitly on these kinds of assumptions. And believe me when i say it does. Seriously, f&$k that.

Now if what you really meant is that extenuating circumstances in these cases should be considered in dealing with such people then of course that is reasonable. Is what you wanted to say: "hey what is the damn point of just sentencing these people harder and not doing anything more to address the horrible social factors that may have contributed to this serious as any crime"? I would be all about such a statement.

Simply letting them off with a lighter sentence is out of the question however, but like the distinction that we make between 'sane' and 'insane' there are things that can be done in terms of sentencing. It's tricky though...if a person who commits such a crime is "redeemable" in some way or form then as soon as they "come back" through treatment, they are going to be faced with the unbelievable guilt of having killed their own beloved child. I don't think there is any meaningful way of recovering from that. And if the person is not redeemable then having them not in society is clearly useful, to you know, procreate again. And if they are really not that worried about what they did the all I can say is good day to you Madame/sir and may Naraka treat you as it should.

MTC said...

sigma1 -

As you can surmise, I do not consider children chattel. I also, as you can guess, cannot countenance even strong words being used against children, much less physical violence.

Nevertheless, I am puzzled at what the courts are trying to do. Reduced to a simple model, a judicial decision tries to achieve one or more of three goals: prevention, rehabilitation and/or retribution. An increase in the length of a sentence implies an attempt to increase the chances a sentence has in attaining any of the three goals.

I do not see the connection between the longer periods of incarceration and the achievement of any of the three goals in these cases of parents killing their children, unless I am supposed to understand the time spent in prison is a sort of procreative quarantine.