Often in the news, we hear stories of criminals who receive light sentences for crimes they have committed. These articles, usually, are scant on information and do not go into the reasons why the Judge felt that a lenient sentence was desirable. Many of us feel angry when we read these articles. However, for Thomas More, a barrister and legal philosopher, it was important to consider a person’s circumstances when sentencing them for a crime.
We’ve previously discussed Thomas More’s opinion on the death penalty. Something of a visionary for his times, More was against the death penalty for everything but murder as there was no incentive for the criminal to surrender to the law (all that awaited them was the gallows). But More’s legal dexterity went beyond the death penalty. He also felt that there was a link between economics, unemployment and crime.
More thought that a person’s background and social standing would explain why they committed crimes such as theft.
For More there was little benefit gained in sentencing a person for theft where industry was stifled by monopolies controlled by a handful of wealthy individuals. In More’s time, the two industries most effected by monopolies controlled by an oligarchy were corn and the wool industry. These monopolies, More noted, had resulted in substantial levels of unemployment.
Delving into the realm of proto-economic theory, the reason for this unemployment, More surmised, was due to price gouging by landowners holding a monopoly on goods such as wool sales, which in turn, increased the cost of goods, and reduced the amount of people who could work, due to business overheads. He stated:
‘The price of wool has also risen so steeply that your poorer weavers simply can’t afford to buy it, which means a lot more people thrown out of work.’ (p 26)
The result of this price gouging, More wagered, had compelled otherwise honest people to commit to a life of crime. While considering the circumstances regarding why people commit crime, and the abolishment of monopolies, More stated:
‘Until you put these things right, you’re not entitled to boast of the justice meted out to thieves, for it’s a justice more specious than real or socially desirable. You allow these people to be brought up in the worst possible way, and systemically corrupted from their earliest years. Finally, when they grow up and commit the crimes that they were obviously destined to commit, ever since they were children, you start punishing them. In other words, you create thieves and then punish them for stealing!’ (p 27)
For More, it was the responsibility for society to provide people with an opportunity to prosper without the need to commit crime.