Where Has Redemption Gone?

I was listening to Robert Greenberg's outstanding DVD course on classical-era opera when the subject turned to Mozart's Don Giovanni, a masterpiece, not only in music, but in narrative as written by the librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte.

Don Giovanni, is a dramatization of the Spanish neer-do-well, Don Juan. In the opera, the Don seduces or rapes, depending on your point of view, the daughter of the local Chief of Police. The Don arrogantly and thoughtlessly kills the Chief, who was defending his daughter's honour. In the backdrop, acting as the Don's moral conscience, is his cowardly servant, Leporello, who berates the Don for his unseemly crimes.

From there, the play moves through the three "R"s; revenge, refused redemption, and finally, retribution, as the ghost of the slain father, in the form of a cemetery statue, destroys Don Gionvanni.

Don Giovanni is not just a delightful feast for ears and eyes but is a present-day reminder of the power of revenge, retribution, and redemption in our criminal law. In H. L. A. Hart's classic book of essays, entitled Punishment and Responsibility, the concept of retribution is uncovered, analyzed, and redrawn, as Hart makes a case for punishment connected to criminal liability and guilt. Since 1968, when Hart first published his theories, sentencing has gone through many reforms; moving away from retribution and revenge and toward the goal of rehabilitation through redemption.

But has this reform in sentencing worked? Is redemption possible? Is rehabilitation workable? And if not, are there punishment alternatives which still preserve the dignity of an individual while encouraging redemption? These are but a few of the questions we must ask before the Canadian government enacts the proposed sentencing "reforms."

Perhaps it would be helpful to look globally at our closest legal system, the UK, for an answer. The Ministry of Justice Structural Reform Plan, published, in 2010, a Green Paper on sentencing reform entitled Breaking the Cycle: effective punishment, rehabilitation and sentencing of offenders. The Government's response , recently released in June 2011, has some surprising recommendations, which I will discuss in tomorrow's blog. I will, however, conclude with a teaser question: is redemption dead?