Universiteit Leiden

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The philosophy of punishment

If you want to maintain a valid penal system, you have to continue to ask the big questions on punishment. Why do we punish people? What is permissible for the government and what is not? Philosopher of Law Jeroen ten Voorde examines these kinds of questions and keeps his academic colleagues and the public on their toes.

Feeding the debate

Why do we punish people and why is the government allowed to impose a punishment? People have pondered this since the dawn of civilisation. It continues to be relevant because changing times require new solutions. New information about sentencing generates new theoretical questions about punishment. ‘If prison sentences prove to have an unintended, negative consequence on a prisoner’s family,’ says Ten Voorde, ‘do we accept this? Do we still think that the prison sentence as a means is just or decent? This is the type of question that I consider myself and I also ask others. My aim is to challenge the academic and public debate and modify inconsistent arguments.’

Ten Voorde does not simply ask questions about punishment, he also formulates an opinion. For instance, about legal measures such as compensation or sectioning, which may be imposed alongside a sentence. ‘There are rules that apply to determining and imposing sentences. Sentencing must be proportional; it is subject to limits. In general, legal measures are not as closely bound to the criminal act. I think that a measure such as lifelong supervision is a concealed punishment. The term “measure” seems to be an argumentative device used to circumvent the rules linked to sentencing. I would question such a measure. Or take an administrative measure such as an alcohol lock. This was enforced on motorists who had drunk too much, although they were generally fined too. That amounted to a double sentence. Is that still decent? The government apparently initially thought that the measure was fair, but the courts challenged it. You can see from this example that it is very important for legal scholars and philosophers to think about and formulate an opinion on such measures.’

Thoughts on sentencing

Ten Voorde is currently looking at the question of why people make certain conduct punishable. ‘The burka ban, for instance, or revenge porn or bullying. Can you really make these a punishable offence? Why do we want to punish that behaviour in particular: is this because harm is caused or are there other arguments? I am one of the supervisors of PhD candidate Zef Faassen. He is conducting research into harm and the question of whether other factors play a role in judging certain behaviour. With virtual child pornography you could ask who exactly is harmed. The answer would be no one, but we still make it a punishable offence. Zef does not just pose philosophical questions, he also wants to conduct research that determines the basis upon which people decide that virtual child pornography is bad. This is a whole new branch of research, and it can help various disciplines disprove or refine existing answers about what is a punishable offence.’

Ten Voorde not only holds up a mirror to colleagues and students, he also gives lectures to a wider public. ‘Scholars have to stimulate people and get them thinking. I often see this happen during lectures. For instance, if I explain to people the dilemma around the Verklaring Omtrent Gedrag (certificate of conduct).’ Ex-prisoners need this certificate to get certain jobs, but the government hardly ever gives them this document, even if they need it for a job that has nothing to do with the crime they committed. ‘With all the ensuing consequences. If you explain this situation to laypeople, you reveal the limitation of what the government can and can’t do, and you reveal the inconsistency of the government’s line of argument. That people then hold up a mirror to me is of course fantastic.’

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