Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Punishment by association

As part of its election year moral panic and law and order binge, the government yesterday passed its Organised Crime (Penalties and Sentencing) Bill through its first reading. The bill does two things: it doubles the penalty for "participation in an organised criminal group" from 5 to 10 years, and it amends the Sentencing Act to allow judges to consider participation in a gang as an "aggravating factor" justifying a higher penalty at sentencing.

The first is simply ridiculous. Currently, the law is hardly ever used because of the very real BORA problems it raises (it is essentially guilt by association). So, doubling the penalty for a crime no-one is ever prosecuted for is unlikely to have any deterrent effect whatsoever. It does however allow politicians to posture about "being tough" and "cracking down" in election year, which is the real point.

The second is simply frightening. Think about it for a moment: what this bill is saying is that you should be able to be punished not just for what you have done, but for things other people have done as well. So, not just guilt by association, but punishment by association as well. If some guy in a patch does something you don't like and you can't catch him, you just stick it on his mates (or other random people in patches; they're all the same anyway) instead. It's unjust, it's immoral, and violates a principle so basic to our justice system we haven't even bothered to explicitly protect it (except in wartime, when such collective punishment is banned under the Geneva Conventions). But I guess these things just happen in an election year...