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How to punish a criminal who has committed multiple crimes?

Professor Jesper Ryberg’s new book focuses on what should be done in criminal cases involving multiple offences.
Jesper Ryberg.
Jesper Ryberg is Professor of Ethics and Philosophy of Law at the Department of Communication and Arts.

Imagine a criminal case before a court. How does it look? Most people will probably think of a person who has been charged with a particular crime and who receives a punishment if he is guilty. Naturally, this is often the case - but far from always.

Often a person is charged with multiple offences at the same time. If he is guilty, it is then up to the court to set a total penalty for all the offences. But how severe should such a punishment be? If the crimes committed usually attract a sentence of 1 year imprisonment, but a criminal has committed 10 such offences, should the sentence simply be multiplied by ten, i.e. 10 years behind bars?

In many places in the world, the practice is not to multiply the penalty. In the example above, the criminal would usually receive a milder sentence than 10 years.

While it is often an aggravating circumstance to commit a crime after previously being convicted, a "bulk discount" is often applied when criminals are punished for many crimes at once. But the question of whether such a discount should be applied, and if so, how large it should be, has been the subject of very little discussion among researchers.

A relevant and difficult question

But there are very good reasons to research the issues of how multiple offences should be punished, explains Jesper Ryberg. Figures from several countries show that up to 40% of all criminal cases involve more than one offence.

"The question is therefore relevant in practice, but it has also proved to be extremely complicated theoretically" says Jesper Ryberg.

Firstly, series of crimes may be very different. For example, a person could commit a bank robbery, knock over a person when leaving the scene, drive away in a stolen car, while also breaking the speed limit. The nature of the crimes is different in such a case. But there can also be cases where a criminal has committed the same crime - for example theft - over and over again. Ryberg explains that when a combined punishment is handed down, it can be challenging therefore to decide how the penalty should relate to the type of crimes committed, and e.g. whether the length of time between the crimes should play a role.

The question of how a series of criminal offences should be punished also depends on the fundamental issue of why should criminals be punished for their misdeeds? If the rationale behind the punishment is that it can prevent future crimes, then there are good reasons for applying some kind of bulk discount, explains Ryberg.

"The fact is that there is no evidence from research to show that criminality can be reduced by have criminals serve their sentences consecutively rather than concurrently" he explains.

However, if you believe that the sentence is justified as a kind of deserved reaction to a person committing an offence, then it's more unclear what should be done if the criminal has committed 10 crimes. There is still disagreement among researchers on this point, according to Ryberg:

"Although there are still open questions, our work has led us closer to finding some well thought out answers to these difficult, but highly relevant questions.”

Jesper Ryberg is Professor of Ethics and Philosophy of Law at the Department of Communication and Arts, and is a previous recipient of the prestigious Elite Research Prize and of the Carlsberg Foundation Research Prize. As a student, you can meet him as a teacher at the Bachelor Study Programme in Humanities.


Facts about the book

Should you receive a "bulk discount" when you are punished for multiple crimes simultaneously, and how big should such a discount be? These questions are the basis for a major international research collaboration between leading philosophers, lawyers and criminologists. The collaboration has been led by RUC Professor Jesper Ryberg along with researchers from England and Holland and has resulted in the first research anthology on the subject, which has just been published by Oxford University Press: “Sentencing Multiple Crimes”.