In France, the intellectuals still believe that the real victims of crime and criminality are the criminals themselves, at least if a long article that appeared in Le Monde earlier this month is anything to go by. Entitled Blind Sentences, it came furnished with a large cartoon of a blindfolded judge, bloodily squashing small people on the bench in front of him with his gavel.
The article was an attack on the increased minimum sentences that President Nicolas Sarkozy and his interior minister, Rachida Dati, have imposed on the criminal justice system. The piece opened with the touching story of 31-year-old Said Baghouz, a man who had been in and out of prison, caught in flagrante while stealing the wallet (and the 10 euros in it) of an old lady returning from a shopping expedition. At his trial Baghouz observed that his father had returned to Algeria because of big problems, that he himself had a poor and chaotic work record with long bouts of unemployment, and that he had received treatment for alcoholism and addiction to pot. After my last imprisonment, he told the judge, nothing was any better. I leave, it all happens again, its always the same thing. No work, cheap hotels.
The new law, Le Monde reported, left the court no choice but to sentence Baghouz to 18 months in prison. His lawyer said bitterly, Eighteen months in prison, that is a heavy punishment, very heavy; the author of the article agreed.
Let us briefly examine this view. The sole aspects of the crime mentioned by Le Monde were that Baghouz had used no violence and that he stole only a derisory amount of money. That he had stolen so little, of course, was no thanks to him; the wallet might have contained hundreds of euros, for all he knew. He doubtless hoped so. The article gave no thought to the effect that such a theft might have on a vulnerable old lady, though surely it takes little imagination to understand how terrified she likely would be.
As for Baghouzs unfortunate background, compassion is due to him. But compassion is not impunity, and it is a gross mistake to think that it is. If his crime inevitably resulted from that unfortunate background, it would be an argument less for judicial leniency than for judicial severity to protect society, for ex hypothesi he would be bound to repeat his crime. Further, to regard Baghouz as merely the victim of his background is to dehumanize him, to deprive his own choices of any real effect upon his own biography. He is no longer a man and a brother, possessing reason, but instead a pitiful slave to circumstances.
Le Monde continued indignantly: The new law is even more intransigent toward those recidivists with aggravating circumstances. Under the new law, crimes committed with violence, with sexual aggression, or while on drugs yield an automatic prison sentence, leaving the judges no discretion except under stringent conditions. This seems to be a virtual admission of previous leniency of the most frivolous kind.
Does 18 months seem so savage in Baghouzs case? The article neglects to mention that his victim was almost certainly, like him, not rich; in fact, like most victims of crime, she was probably poor. The moral exhibitionism of the articles author, at the expense of the lower classes, contrasts badly with the seriousness of the minister, Rachida Dati, herself of Moroccan and Algerian origin, and one of 12 children, one of whom is a recidivist drug dealer sentenced to imprisonment. She knows whereof she legislates.
Theodore Dalrymple, a physician, is a contributing editor of City Journal and the Dietrich Weismann Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. His most recent book is In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas.