Altruistic or self-serving? Four things judges consider when sentencing politically motivated crimes

In Brisbane, earlier this month, more than 70 climate-change protesters faced charges for offenses such as obstructing the police, violating directions, and blocking traffic.

Where do political crimes fall on the scale of criminal responsibility?

Is irrelevant in criminal law . There are some crimes (such as terrorism) which require a reason for the criminal act. However, this is rare. It is usually enough to show that the offender acted intentionally, recklessly, or negligently.

In criminal law, motive is usually irrelevant. It’s an important part of sentencing laws. Darren England/AAP Image

On the other, motive is at the heart of sentencing laws. Both mercy killers and contract killers may be found guilty of murder. However, the punishment for contract killers is more severe. These people will be deemed more guilty because they are motivated by money, have a greater need for deterrence, and pose a greater risk to society.

Read more: Why does the US sentence people to hundreds of years in prison?

Judges, lawyers, and the community at large will frequently agree on which motives are worse than others. For example, it seems clear offenders who commit crimes out of greed should be punished more harshly than offenders who commit crimes out of need.

Unfortunately, the courts have provided little guidance on whether politically-motivated crimes – such as Extinction Rebellion blockades or “Egg Boy” Will Connolly’s egging of far-right politician Fraser Anning – are better or worse than crimes committed for motives like jealousy or vengeance.

In past cases where judges have sentenced politically motivated offenders, they have used two distinct approaches.

The need for a sympathetic approach

Some judges have shown a certain level of sympathy, showing respect for offenders’ principles.

Although it is acknowledged that they broke the law and deserved to be punished, their actions aren’t considered as wrong as those who violate the rules for less altruistic motives. Judges have, therefore, decided that they should be treated more leniently.

This approach is illustrated in the Pine Gap Peace Pilgrims case, which took place in 2017 when six religious leaders breached Pine Gap’s perimeter.

Six peace activists found guilty of trespassing on a defense base near Alice Springs were only punished lightly. Dan Peled/AAP

Justice Reeves’ sentencing of the offenders was influenced in part by their status as “conscientious demonstrators.” He said that their crimes were at the “lower end of the scale.”

Instead of imprisoning the defendants, as requested by prosecutors, he fined them between A$1250 and A$5000.

The harsher the punishment

In some cases, judges took a less sympathetic approach. In other cases, judges have taken a less compassionate approach.

This makes them not only more guilty but also more dangerous and harmful for the community. They should, therefore, be punished harshly.

Read more: Serial killers’ fates are in politicians’ hands. Here’s why that’s a worry

This approach can be seen in the sentencing of DJ Astro “Funknukl” Labe, who was convicted of headbutting Tony Abbott.

Although Labe caused only minor physical injury, Magistrate Daly deemed the offense to be “considerably serious.”

He stated that the sentence should make it clear to others with similar impulses that if they indulged in those impulses, they would be subject to a deterrent punishment. He sentenced Labe to six months in prison.

Four factors in politically motivated crime sentencing

These cases show four factors that appear to influence the approach of a judge.

Most importantly, the severity of the offense. The judge is usually sympathetic to cases that involve minor offenses, like spitting and trespassing.

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