It is common place to hear of harsh punishments dished out fairly regularly in the USA. Draconian punishments of the sort would be unthinkable of in Western Europe. This article attempts to give a few reasons for the differences without claiming to offer a conclusive explanation. This is the first article of a series of articles on this subject. This will give a quick preview of the topics I will discuss with in-depth detail.
1)Sensational tabloid style newspapers
Often front page sensational news of a excessively brutal crime are reported backed up with graphic details. This is further promoted by televised news reporters of incidents with heavy competition for viewers. A particularly brutal crime such as that of the Belgian M. Dutroux or more recently the incredible story of Natasha Kampusch tend to bias the public into thinking that most crimes are brutal. Nothing is further from the truth. In fact the majority of incarcerated persons are not there for homicides, but rather for less sensational crimes such as theft. Electors often vote based on the most recent news, also known as the accessibility bias (In general, the argument stipulates that information that can be more easily retrieved from memory tends to dominate judgments, opinions and decisions).
Direct voting systems: When a politicians political career depends on winning the most votes, the type arguments that appeal to the masses are simple messages. These tend to be simple things that appeal to the general public’s basic needs – protection being one of these. Politicians who take a tough stance against crime often stand a better chance of winning. This is often related to point 1 above as politicians with greater sources of funding will have more visibility via marketing of their views (increase accessibility bias above).
3)Three strikes law and mandatory minimal sentences
The three strikes law and the resulting minimal sentences laws in some American states would simply be not acceptable in Europe. These are flawed systems based on flawed reasoning. Basically these laws stipulate that a person convicted at least three times for a felony will be sentenced to a mandatory 25 years imprisonment. This can lead to perverse situations where three thefts of three flat screen televisions lead to 25 years imprisonment – in many European countries not even murder gets such a heavy punishment.
4)American legal system and plea bargaining
Within the American judicial system, contrary to what is often aired on police television series, roughly three quarters of persons charged with a crime end up with a plea bargain. A particularly perverse consequence of the three strikes law is the case when a person is presented with the following dilemma. He has already two former felony counts. He is on his third strike against a prosecutor with a weak case. The prosecutor offers that he plead guilty and get 20 years’ imprisonment or plead non guilty and risk 25 years if convicted. An innocent person (typically poor thus cannot afford a lawyer) would be advised by a state appointed, over worked lawyer to plead guilty.
Of course this is not an extensive list. However these address some of the core differences that distinguish western European legal systems and attitudes towards crime to those of the Americans. I will publish subsequently an article to discuss each point above. Although no conclusion can be drawn from the information provided above, there is clearly a base for discussion and further explanation. Comments are much appreciated – if you have any feedback, it could be useful when writing the subsequent articles.
Holder of an Master of law in Legal Issues, Crime and Security of New Technologies of the University of Lausanne (Switzerland) as well as a BSc in Business Information Systems of the University of Lausanne (Switzerland).