Crime and punishment

Rotation of P1020635

This is my kitchen. As you can see, domestic standards are under siege, though not so much as at one time (December 1991, I believe) when I lived at Brighton St Petersham (where with a little difficulty the same table can be identified beneath considerably more detritus). Standards fall when I am on my own, and D is still away.

The picture is a reconstruction of an unusual sight which greeted me when I emerged in the morning from slumber a few mornings ago, but with one essential difference: the cat was not underneath the table, but curled up asleep on my flourescent cycling whatever jacket.

It’s not unusual for the cat to find some often very minimally padded spot which he adopts as a suitable slightly nest-like place to curl up and sleep.

There are some regular spots, and then from time to time he adopts some more idiosyncratic one which he will then be very keen on for about 4 or 5 days and then just get over. Here is one such spot which now seems to have fallen out of favour.

pussy in bowl

There are probably deeper patterns which I am too unobservant to discern.

But cat on the table is a big no-no. To his credit, he almost never jumps up. If he were tempted to do so in my presence, he would receive and respond to a rebuke; 2 or 3 times in his 12 year life I may have slapped him lightly when discovering him up there, normally on catching him scavenging. In a Pavlovian way, at least, he knows the rules.

That’s the most primitive version of crime and punishment, where you rely on the punishment to imprint behaviour which avoids crime. The punishment is given, and so long as the criminal has some means of associating the punishment with the crime in question, the criminal will learn not to commit whatever it was they were punished for.

I lifted the cat off the table and took him elsewhere. I didn’t have a high confidence in his being able to associate waking up on the table with how he had climbed up on the table and made his nest there. Any rebuke or even “punishment” was surely pointless. If it was a question of holding some line about food and jumping up I might have felt differently, but it appeared to be the more specific temptation of the cycling jacket which accounted for his (from my point of view) transgression.

Punishment, as I think John Stuart Mill said, is inherently bad, and should only be inflicted so far as some greater good is achieved.

In our legal system, a lot of offences are only punishable summarily (that is, by a magistrate rather than after a trial before a judge and, normally, jury). One consequence of this is that the charge must be brought within a specified period, usually about 12 months. Crimes which are triable indictably (judge and jury) can be the subject of a charge at any time, even if the charge itself is a relatively trivial instance of the indictable crime and would normally (this applies to a wide range of crimes other than a few which can only be tried on indictment) be dealt with summarily. So you can do something which is qualitatively serious enough to be indicted but nevertheless is not a serious offence of its category, and no matter how many years after it comes to the notice of the authorities, you can be charged. There is nothing you can do to efface your crime other than turning yourself in and, even then, actually facing a trial.

Where the delay is a result of delays by the prosecution, you may get a stay of the prosecution because of the inherent unfairness and hardship of facing a prosecution many years after the event. Other times it may well be a matter for the exercise of a prosecutorial discretion not to prosecute. Even when a prosecution is successfully mounted, the elapse of time can provide a basis for reducing punishment and in some cases there could be in effect no punishment beyond the conviction, which can in some cases nevertheless have quite a punitive effect on its own, though sometimes that effect could be obtained by other means.

I came to thinking about this when the first details emerged of the facts in relation to the charges against one of the Knox teachers, who has today pleaded guilty, or so it is reported, to inciting a fourteen-year-old boy to an act of indecency in 1987. The teacher was 33 (by my reckoning) at the time. To quote the SMH:

According to a prosecution submission, the student was alone with Vance in a staff room when he accepted the offer of a cigarette, thinking it would be ”cool” to smoke with a teacher.

But Vance ”wanted to go somewhere where they would not be found out”.

He took the boy to the Q Store underneath the Knox chapel, where equipment for the school cadets was kept, closing the door so they were ”in pitch black”. After handing him a cigarette, Vance asked him explicit questions – including whether he masturbated.

The boy ”felt threatened and scared”, the prosecution submission states.

”I knew I was in trouble and had a serious issue on my hands,” he later told police.

The student fled ”in terror” to another room, holding the door shut as Vance followed. The teacher smoked another cigarette outside before leaving the boy. Thinking he would not be believed, the frightened boy did not report the incident at the time.

It’s important to realise that these are prosecution submissions (perhaps from an earlier bail application) and they involve a good deal of interpretation. Unless the teacher has made admissions, you would have to think that some of those conclusions were open to question. Was it really the case that, from the start, the teacher sought to “lure” the boy to the dark place with the inducement of a cigarette? The offence itself must surely be at the bottom end of the range. It is not “attempting” to commit an act of indecency, but “inciting” another to do so, and on the facts reported, the inciting must be based on a conclusion about “grooming” amounting to “inciting.” By his plea of guilty, the teacher has accepted some of this, unless the evidence goes further to more specific suggestions. I take it as axiomatic that the inciting must be for the boy to commit some indecent act with the teacher and mere encouragement to practise masturbation on his own and not in the presence of any other [looks like a pleonasm but on reflection isn’t] would not suffice.

It’s a long road from that cigarette and dirty talk in the darkened quartermaster’s store under the chapel (that’s the military-religious complex in boys’ private schools for you) in 1987 to the Hornsby Local Court in 2009.

What has happened in the meantime in the lives of man and (then) boy?

I was solicited for sex by a stranger when I was 12. It was frightening, but I don’t think that 22 years after the event I harboured any desire to see that man (he mightn’t have been that old) punished and I certainly don’t now. Obviously, it’s not for me to impose my own standards on others, and my experience was different, especially as involving a stranger rather than a teacher. However, it is still up to the prosecution to exercise its discretion in relation to prosecution. Unfortunately, in this area, the discretion and its exercise have practically withered away.
Update 30 September:

A conviction was recorded (not clear from the report whether there was a section 9 or section 10 application) and Vance was placed on a good behaviour bond for two years. Despite a psychological report that Vance could not be clinically labelled a pedophile (this must surely mean there is evidence of present orientations otherwise and an accounting for the incident in question on historical grounds to do with the position of 30-something-year-old bachelor teachers in the 1980s) he will now be on the child protection register and unable to work with young people.

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