While I consider myself to be liberal in attitude, I read a newspaper article today that had me shaking in anger and wishing he utmost evil to befall the perpetrator. The story concerned a violent rape in Dublin, where the rapist threatened to kill the victim’s child if he didn’t get his way. The woman was then raped repeatedly while the young child was abandoned in a public park. The whole story was horrific – the mark of a warped, twisted mind.

My instinctive reaction was to wish we had a death penalty, so he could be done away with.

Circumstances such as these are often difficult for people with liberal or progressive values. Conservative commentators love these stories, because they make liberals seem like idiots. OF COURSE they should be flogged, flayed and scalped, dragged through town by galloping horses, then thrown in a dungeon to suffer a painful and lingering death. What reasonable human wouldn’t condone such a course of action? Surely, taking a different position makes it seem as if you have more sympathy with the perpetrator than with the victim?

Such argumentation is misleading on two counts. It’s a classic case of a false dilemma: if you do not accept the stated position, then you must be a wooly headed liberal, with all the baggage that entails. Can you not be for strong punitive action and yet remain committed to liberal values? Questions like these have no place in such rhetoric. Secondly, it’s a classic straw man – if you exaggerate the liberal position as much as you can, you will make it seem ludicrous. The real liberal position can therefore be safely ignored.

I still wish nothing but evil on those who would enact these crimes. I guess it’s a human reaction. However, I feel that our justice system needs to be as fair and as well designed as it can be. It should allow for mistakes to be corrected. It should not veer towards witch-hunts and “guilty until proven innocent”. Even a small bit of research will expose great difficulties in capital punishment, corporal punishment, revenge punishment and torture. Systems that treat people with impunity are all very well until they reach beyond the confines of the violent psychopaths and into the realm of public misdemeanours. Controls and checks need to be in place. As our societies improve, we need our systems of justice to improve with it.

This doesn’t mean we leave criminals off the hook or ignore the needs of victims and greater society. People need to be protected from those who have the means and intent to do great harm. Some people should not be allowed back into society where there remains a substantial risk to the public, no matter how long they have been incarcerated. Sentencing needs to take victim impacts into account. Harshness where appropriate.

Resorting to the whip, the cane and solitary might seem appropriate in some circumstances, but our understanding of psychology indicates that punishment, as a deterrent and a means of reform, is highly inadequate at best. People can get used to most things given time. Cognitive dissonance acts to minimise culpability, even in the worst situations. Mental illness in prison has its own dynamic, often seeing to it that the punishment and the crime are totally unrelated to each other.

We need a justice system that balances these concerns. We need people to be protected from those who wish us harm. We need for criminals to be rehabilitated, so they don’t pose a threat to others. We need a system of justice that embraces the complex needs of society. What we don’t need are brutal solutions introduced that seemingly make one aspect better, while making everything else worse.