12 votes

Should legal decisions take into account only the nature and circumstances of a crime, or also the conditions of its victims?

I've had part of this discussion today with a work colleague: under our country's laws a judge (there's no jury) may take into consideration the condition and general being of a victim of a crime when judging the perpetrator. For example an conviction of assault and battery may be higher of the victim was disabled/had a fragile constitution compared to a more "normative" able-bodied person.

My colleague maintained that this was unfair if there is no way the perpetrator realizes the victim's fragility, as it means unequal punishment for equal actions. Specifically he takes issue with the Eggshell Skull rule. In effect his argument seemed to be that what should be judged is the action and intent of the crime itself.

I maintained that is was fair because the judgement should be proportional to the effect caused on the world.

What do other users think?

17 comments

  1. [3]
    Algernon_Asimov Link
    Does your colleague believe that punching or slapping a baby is the same as punching or slapping an adult? How about shaking it? Babies can die from being shaken too hard, whereas shaking an adult...

    Does your colleague believe that punching or slapping a baby is the same as punching or slapping an adult? How about shaking it? Babies can die from being shaken too hard, whereas shaking an adult is extremely unlikely to have the same effect. But it's the same punch, the same slap, the same shake in both cases.

    Of course the condition of the victim - before and after the crime - matters. If I slap an adult, they'll get a bruise. If I slap a baby, I can break its neck. If I give a bruise to an adult from a slap, but make a baby a paraplegic from the same slap, have I committed the same crime in both cases? Of course not.

    5 votes
    1. [2]
      clerical_terrors Link Parent
      He consented that in the case of a baby it would be different, but because a baby is visibly and understandably more fragile. The idea he takes issue with, specifically, is the Eggshell skull...

      He consented that in the case of a baby it would be different, but because a baby is visibly and understandably more fragile. The idea he takes issue with, specifically, is the Eggshell skull rule, in which the ignorance of a victim's frailty is not accepted as a valid defense.

      I've updated the OP to make this clearer.

      8 votes
      1. Algernon_Asimov Link Parent
        Most legal systems around the world already encode the principle that the degree of punishment should reflect the degree of harm done. In the western legal system, for example, we punish people...

        Most legal systems around the world already encode the principle that the degree of punishment should reflect the degree of harm done. In the western legal system, for example, we punish people more for killing someone than for maiming them, more for maiming them than for injuring them, and more for injuring them than hurting them. There's a rising scale of punishment based on the amount of harm caused - even on the same category of victim. If I attack an adult male and cause him temporary pain, I will get a small punishment. If I attack the same adult male and break his arm, I will get a minor punishment. If I attack the same adult male and amputate his arm, I will get a larger punishment. If I attack the same adult male and break his neck (which makes him a paraplegic), I will get an even larger punishment. If I attack the same adult male and kill him, I will get the largest punishment possible. Our legal system already recognises that a crime with higher consequences on the victim should incur a higher punishment.

        This principle should also apply to harm on different victims, not just different harm on the same victim. If the same attack causes one person to have a temporary injury but causes another person to have a permanent impairment, then we should invoke the same principle that is already encoded in our legal system, and apply a higher punishment to the attack which caused the higher damage to its victim.

        5 votes
  2. Amarok Link
    I don't have a good answer for you, and it's a tough question. It depends on if you prioritize equal punishment under the law for identical crimes, or if you want to be flexible. Both methods have...

    I don't have a good answer for you, and it's a tough question. It depends on if you prioritize equal punishment under the law for identical crimes, or if you want to be flexible. Both methods have advantages and disadvantages. Be too rigid, and plenty of people's lives get ruined for minor infractions and simple mistakes. Be too flexible, and that makes it much easier for criminals to get off light.

    I favor the flexibility - based largely on the track record of the people involved. People espousing a pattern of bad behavior require a harder tact. People who are just in the wrong place/wrong time and do not have a criminal record should be given some leniency. It also depends upon the severity of the crime - theft vs murder, for example. The worse the crime, the less lenient the legal system can afford to be.

    I also favor a system of reform rather than simple incarceration. Many European countries have made impressive strides in this area over the last several decades. Profit cannot be allowed to exist in any form in legal systems, or the profit motive will corrupt 'justice' into a form of slavery, which sums up how criminal law is handled in most of the USA. Victimless crimes are also to be avoided - if there is no victim, then there is no crime, and it doesn't matter what the law is. That alone would clean acres of garbage out of any justice system and free it up to concentrate on real crime.

    We've been arguing about all of this as a society for several thousand years, I doubt it'll get settled today. :P

    4 votes
  3. [3]
    mftrhu (edited ) Link
    It's a tough question, and I don't think I have a definite answer. Judgement should take in account the effect caused on the world, yes, but the main purpose that punishment serves is to deter...

    It's a tough question, and I don't think I have a definite answer.

    Judgement should take in account the effect caused on the world, yes, but the main purpose that punishment serves is to deter others from committing the same crime, and to make it so that the perpetrator won't cause more harm - both by isolating them from potential victims in the short term, and by reforming them in the long term.

    One example given from the wikipedia page you linked is rear-ending someone with brittle bone syndrome, causing them bodily harm. I don't like that rule applying there - in the case of true accidents, at least, not accidents involving driving under the influence or recklessness - because it doesn't serve any of those purpose.

    You can't deter accidents, because there is no intentionality there. You don't need to stop the perpetrator from causing more harm (again, unless they were driving recklessly or under the influence) because they aren't likely to do that again.

    The doctrine is applied in all areas of torts – intentional torts, negligence, and strict liability cases – as well as in criminal law. There is no requirement of physical contact with the victim – if a trespasser's wrongful presence on the victim's property so terrifies the victim that he has a fatal heart attack, the trespasser will be liable for the damages stemming from his original tort. The foundation for this rule is based primarily on policy grounds. The courts do not want the defendant or accused to rely on the victim's own vulnerability to avoid liability.

    I don't particularly like this, either.

    Yes, the perpetrator was trespassing and yes, the victim suffered a fatal heart attack. Yes, there was intentionality, but it was not aimed at causing harm in the first place.

    I understand why this rule is in place - especially when the perpetrator knows the victim, knowing that they are particularly vulnerable - but, unless they were intentionally trying to cause a heart attack, I don't think that they should bear the full responsibility of that: there was intentionality, but the intended harms were far, far away from what they actually caused.

    In this case, IANAL/IANAJ, but I think they should receive a greater punishment than that for trespassing, but a lesser one than that for manslaughter.

    For example an conviction of assault and battery may be higher of the victim was disabled/had a fragile constitution compared to a more "normative" able-bodied person.

    But as for this?

    If you punch someone, or just shove them away, does it matter if they broke their skull because it was exceptionally fragile, or because they "just" fell badly on the pavement? You still intended to shove them, shoved them, and caused them bodily harm, or even killed them.

    The intended harm is much nearer the caused harm here. They in any case knew that there was a risk of causing it, even without the victim being particularly frail, so I see no issue here.

    Edit: 1s/though/tough/

    3 votes
    1. [2]
      mb3077 Link Parent
      The way I see it is, if you knowingly commit a crime, you should expect the most severe consequence to come from it. In the example of car accidents: If you were undeniably the perpetrator of a...

      I understand why this rule is in place - especially when the perpetrator knows the victim, knowing that they are particularly vulnerable - but, unless they were intentionally trying to cause a heart attack, I don't think that they should bear the full responsibility of that

      The way I see it is, if you knowingly commit a crime, you should expect the most severe consequence to come from it.
      In the example of car accidents: If you were undeniably the perpetrator of a collision (either by drunk driving, being negligent, texting while driving etc.), you should expect the worst case scenario to come out of it, like the victim dying of a heart attack and getting charged with manslaughter.

      But if you were to unknowingly commit a crime, like lightly shoving someone, them tripping and breaking their skull, then there's an argument of intent here.

      3 votes
      1. mftrhu Link Parent
        I would still consider the trespass situation to be very different from shoving someone, and attribute less responsibility to them than with someone shoving someone else. Unless they were trying...

        I would still consider the trespass situation to be very different from shoving someone, and attribute less responsibility to them than with someone shoving someone else.

        Unless they were trying to shove the other person away for some "lawful" reason (e.g. because they were threatened by them), they would still have committed assault, possibly battery. I'm not sure how you could unknowingly do that - maybe by bumping on them?

        So I'd consider that to be intentional, with the intention "aimed more" in the direction of inflicting harm than just trespassing - if the trespasser wasn't doing it to commit some other crime (maybe by just jumping a fence and cutting through someone's else property), at least.

        And that, you can try to deter, expecting an actual reduction in those kinds of events in the future - i.e., it takes a very, very unlucky sequence of events for a simple trespass to lead to a death, but it's much much more common when you are getting physical, even just pushing/shoving someone around.

        So you gain less, and lose more (a person for years in prison), by punishing a trespasser for manslaughter - you might prevent further trespasses, but not further heart attacks. Conversely, you stand to gain much more re: possible future lethal accidents when dealing with shoving.

        If you were undeniably the perpetrator of a collision (either by drunk driving, being negligent, texting while driving etc.), you should expect the worst case scenario to come out of it, like the victim dying of a heart attack and getting charged with manslaughter.

        I don't disagree with this, on the grounds that you are not trying to deter the accident but the behaviour that lead to that accident (DUI, recklessness, negligence) and, ultimately, to a death/hospitalization.

        2 votes
  4. [2]
    JamesTeaKirk Link
    This attitude seems to me to push further into a system of revenge rather than rehabilitation. I don't see what good it would do for anyone.

    This attitude seems to me to push further into a system of revenge rather than rehabilitation. I don't see what good it would do for anyone.

    2 votes
  5. bun Link
    I think in this case you both sort of have a point. You should take intent in mind when it comes to punitive/rehabilitary measures, but I think for the sake of compensation you need to look at the...

    I think in this case you both sort of have a point. You should take intent in mind when it comes to punitive/rehabilitary measures, but I think for the sake of compensation you need to look at the actual harm done.

    Take for instance cases where no bodily harm has been done. All harm is monetary. So if someone where to burgle two homes, but in the first case runs off with 500 euros worth of stuff and in the second case 50000 euros worth of stuff, should the punishment of the crime be different? Should robbing the rich come with more punishment than robbing the poor? Of course the reparation should be in tune with the damage, but the time spent in rehabilitation for what essentially is the same crime should be the same.

    2 votes
  6. [4]
    Hypersapien Link
    I say that the court should take into account what knowledge, or even beliefs, the perpetrator had of the victim's condition.

    I say that the court should take into account what knowledge, or even beliefs, the perpetrator had of the victim's condition.

    1 vote
    1. [3]
      botanrice Link Parent
      But do you think that that may be hard to identify in a court of law? What if the perpetrator never admits to knowing the victim's condition? If two people get into a fist fight and one, who...

      But do you think that that may be hard to identify in a court of law? What if the perpetrator never admits to knowing the victim's condition? If two people get into a fist fight and one, who unbeknownst to the other has an issue where their blood doesn't clot quickly, gets a few cuts or wounds and eventually gets significantly hurt due to this takes the other to court after the fact - what happens then? Is it passed upon by the judge since they didn't know? I guess that's likely how it is now in some cases.
      But what if the one who inflicted the wounds had known that prior. Would they admit it? What if they don't? Just pondering here.

      1. [2]
        Hypersapien Link Parent
        How do you convict people who never admit to a crime? In your example, if the accused knew that the person he was fighting was a hemophiliac, then it's most likely that someone told him. They...

        How do you convict people who never admit to a crime?

        In your example, if the accused knew that the person he was fighting was a hemophiliac, then it's most likely that someone told him. They could call that person as a witness.

        If there's no way to show that the person knew, then the court shouldn't consider it. Just like we don't convict people (in theory) without evidence, even if they did, in fact, commit the offense.

        1 vote
        1. botanrice Link Parent
          You have a good point. I sort of realized that after I mentioned that, but you're right.

          You have a good point. I sort of realized that after I mentioned that, but you're right.

  7. [3]
    nsz Link
    After reading the Wikipedia article on the egg shell rule, I think I have to come down on your side of the argument. I think the legal system is about fixing the wrong done to a victim, so...

    After reading the Wikipedia article on the egg shell rule, I think I have to come down on your side of the argument.

    I think the legal system is about fixing the wrong done to a victim, so whatever happens to them should be answered for. Punishment is not just about appropriate consequences for the perpetrator. If it's not their fault because they did not know, who should pay then? You can't just leave the victim and say tough luck they didn't know.

    1. [2]
      Algernon_Asimov Link Parent
      I think "fixing" might be the wrong word here. Most sentences imposed on a culprit do nothing whatsoever to compensate or assist the victim in any way. Any fine the culprit pays goes to the state,...

      I think the legal system is about fixing the wrong done to a victim,

      I think "fixing" might be the wrong word here. Most sentences imposed on a culprit do nothing whatsoever to compensate or assist the victim in any way. Any fine the culprit pays goes to the state, not the victim. Any sentence served by the culprit hurts the culprit, but does not help the victim. The victim gets nothing out of a criminal conviction imposed on the person who hurt them. They would have to personally sue the culprit to obtain any type of "fix" for the wrong done to them.

      The punishment imposed by the legal system might be in proportion to the wrong done to a victim, but it doesn't fix that wrong.

      1 vote
      1. nsz Link Parent
        Yeah you're right. Though I just realised while looking back at the eggshell wiki page that they talk about tort law — which as far as I can tell form google is civil law — and they mentions lots...

        Yeah you're right. Though I just realised while looking back at the eggshell wiki page that they talk about tort law — which as far as I can tell form google is civil law — and they mentions lots of cases where monetary settlements were involved. I had not really clocked the difference between it and criminal law.

        That aside their is something to be said for giving the victim some sort of resolutions, knowing the crime was answered for — nothing ground-breaking. But I just wanted to point out the victim and what was done to them is important, probably more so than the intentions of the criminal.

        1 vote