Thought Leadership

Justice, punishment and protection

By Colin Walls

It is amazing how often people have said to me “You think too much.” What they are accusing me of is over-thinking stuff and, I concede, they may have a point. But when I learn about something, and do not fully understand it, I think about it and continue to do so until either I attain the level of understanding that satisfies me, or give up in frustration.

When I am considering matters concerning human behavior, I know that I am unlikely to arrive at The Answer – there will always be fuzziness. This leads me to a philosophic frame of mind, which tends to leak out into what I write here. Today is such a day …

I have the basic belief that there is no such thing as a “bad person”. People do bad things; some people do a lot of very bad things. None of this is excusable and a function of society is to contain, control and, where possible, prevent bad behavior. People do bad things for a variety of reasons, but they may generally be recognized as being one of just two categories. They may simply be giving in to normal human emotions, that we should all learn to control, such as greed, anger, lust, jealousy etc. Alternatively, they may be mentally ill, in which case they need treatment to cure the illness, if that is possible.

Punishment for crimes seems sensible. The theory is that, if the punishment is bad enough, and is actually likely to be applied, it will be a disincentive to commit the crime. The likely perpetrator will have the encouragement to learn to bring their emotions under control.

However, if someone’s criminal activity is driven by a mental illness [which might include an innate inability to contain strong emotions], no amount of potential punishment is going to be a disincentive. If their condition can be cured, the treatment should be applied. If not, the person needs to be detained indefinitely in order to protect society from them.

It is my belief that a civilized country has a fully accountable law enforcement and justice system. Good justice aims to be fair to all parties, but must intrinsically accept that miscarriages can and will occur. As a result, an appeal mechanism must be available so that the innocent are not punished and may be compensated for any unjust punishment that they have received. Clearly, in such a system, there is no place for capital punishment, as this is intrinsically non-reversable.

I recently saw a campaign that demanded that pedophiles should be executed to make sure that they cannot possibly harm any more children. I can fully understand why this course of action might seem logical and reasonable to many people. Indeed, if one of my children were violated in this way, my emotional response would probably lead me down such a course. However, this is not either logical or just. Is it conceivable that anyone wakes up one day and thinks that it might be fun to sexually assault young children, given the very likely consequences of such an action? Of course not. They would only do that if they were driven by a compulsion, resulting from a mental aberration. Such a person must be prevented from harming more children, for sure, but they also deserve our compassion and should be treated, if at all possible.

If you doubt that this is the right course of action, consider the following scenario. You are a normal healthy individual with a driving license and insurance and a well maintained, legal car. You are driving to work one morning, when suddenly you have a blackout – maybe a non-fatal heart attack. You lose control of the car and crash into a crowd of children waiting for a bus and injure and kill several of them. You later wake up in hospital with no memory of the accident. How would you expect to be treated after this event? Were you a murderer who should be punished? No, of course not. You would expect to receive sympathy and treatment. You might accept that society needed to be protected from the possibility of this occurring again and lose your driving license. How, at a fundamental level, does this situation differ from a pedophile killing a child?

OK, I am now going to think about trees and flowers and nice things for the rest of the day …

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at