Of all the many foolish and inaccurate metaphors, one of the most foolish and inaccurate, it seems to me, is that of prisoners having ‘paid their debt to society’ on their release. The metaphor is in international use: I saw it recently in a French newspaper.
The article was about Philippe El Shannawy, of an Egyptian father and French mother, an armed robber who has spent 38 of his 59 years in prison. I do not know enough about his case to have an opinion as to whether his punishment was disproportionate to his crimes: from the little I know, I suspect that it might have been. He has been freed provisionally and under strict conditions; it was the President, François Hollande, who reduced somewhat his sentence of imprisonment in perpetuity. Before he did so, Philippe El Shennawy said:
Perhaps François Hollande will judge whether I have the right to
a real life in society, or whether I have not yet paid my debt…
Now if we insist upon using the metaphor of debt, it is clear that those who go to prison after a crime do not so much clear a debt as incur a further debt: for it costs society thousands to imprison them. Far from being a debt repaid, it is a debt that society perforce has to write off because in practice it is never going to recover it.
Crime and punishment are not two entries in an account book with, say, armed robbery on the liability side and imprisonment on the asset side. Punishment is not debt-collection. If it were, a parent would be able to say to his child ‘I am sending you to bed early tonight so that you can misbehave tomorrow.’ No one can volunteer to do twelve years in prison in advance on the understanding that he can kill someone on his release without incurring further punishment.
It is right, of course, that a person who has purged his punishment as laid down by law should be given another chance by society. I accept that a person who has burgled my house cannot go on being punished for ever, and to do so would be wrong from many points of view, but this does not entail that his punishment is in some way equivalent to his burglary.
Does a wrong metaphor do any harm? If it suggests to the potential malefactor that there is a just price for crime, then I think that it does.