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A society that forgives wins

  • 25 August 2016


Almost all public conversation quickly turns to transgressors. At the Olympic Games competitors growled about proven and suspect drug users. Many people believed that all Russian athletes should have been excluded from the games. They wanted people found to have used drugs named, shamed and shunned.

This insistence that transgressors should definitively lose their good name and the right to participate is not confined to sport. It is found also in controversy about penal policy, and particularly in the populist cry to lock criminals up and throw away the key. The 'three strikes' policy, by which in some states of the USA offenders can be sent to prison for 25 years or life for a relatively minor offence, is a dramatic example.

In Australia it finds parallels in the introduction of mandatory and indefinite sentences, indefinite detention, the abolition of parole and the outrage when a prisoner who has served his sentence is found to be living in a residential neighbourhood.

In social media the loss of reputation is also definitive and irrecoverable. The same severity can be seen in the attitude to public reputation particularly as this is affected by social media. When people enter public life their past record, including the traces they leave on social media, will be held against them.

The burden this may later place on children whose natural imprudence will be forever on record can only be imagined. People's reputations may be frozen in words and actions that they may have later come to regret. They cannot, and others will not, take away the shame that their past lays upon them.

What are we to make of this unyielding severity? Arguments can certainly be made in favour of it. In sport the reluctance of governing bodies to risk their public standing or financial benefits by dealing firmly with drug use may justify the demand to make examples of athletes who are caught.

Two legitimate goals of penal policy, too, are to assure the security of the community and to show that violent and fraudulent actions are not acceptable.

So if lenient sentencing would result in public acceptance of violent behaviour, and so put people at risk, a case for harsh sentences for particular crimes could be made, even where they would make more difficult the offender's integration with society. The case would need to be based on evidence, however, not simply on assertion.


"If we identify people with the wrong they have