Giving criminals the punishment they deserve is a fundamental principle of the administration of justice. To most people, it means putting the accused in the dock, giving him or her a fair trial and passing the appropriate sentence. But punishment is only a means to an end. There is more to justice than locking people up. Equally important is the concept of rehabilitation so that offenders do not get on the wrong side of the law again. A lenient approach for first-time law breakers is, therefore, justified sometimes.
The circumstances in which one commits a crime vary from case to case. Some law breakers act out of character. Sometimes their crime is merely foolish or the product of a lack of judgment. This is especially so among youngsters, who do not understand the gravity of their actions. By giving them a reprieve, there is a good chance that they will get back on the right track. Throwing youngsters into jail for minor offences is more likely to ruin than rehabilitate them.
It is encouraging to see that the principle has been recognised by the Department of Justice. Speaking in an interview with this paper, Director of Public Prosecutions Kevin Zervos called for "compassionate treatment" of first-time offenders who commit minor crimes. He rightly pointed out that justice can be done in a variety of ways; for example, defendants can be asked to write letters of apology to their victims, or law enforcers can issue warnings to young offenders.
Such an approach is already reflected in the number of cases which prosecutors choose not to pursue further by offering no evidence in court; the number is up from about 1,400 a year before 2006 to about 2,100 a year since 2010.
However, youngsters should not be given the wrong message. They must not think they can easily get away with petty crimes. Some offenders need punishing to change their ways. The department has a duty to maintain confidence in the system and ensure justice is administered in line with public expectations. Leniency should be reserved for the deserving.