Oct 13, 2019

Before I went to university and then later trained to be a priest, I was conscripted into the Police Force in the early 1980’s in darkest Apartheid South Africa. I was forced to serve for four years and, for a time, I was seconded to the criminal courts where I often made the acquaintance of people on trial for various heinous crimes. Jamal was a typical offender: young, black, male, a drop-out without a job. The year before I met him in prison, he had held up an elderly man with a gun and stolen 500 Rands (around £50 at the time). He was hunted down, arrested and put on trial. There was no doubt that he was guilty and the Magistrate turned to the sentencing guidelines in order to reach a sentence. The guidelines recommended a minimum sentence of 24 months for a robbery of this kind; all seemed clear. However, when the Magistrate looked more closely at the circumstances as the trial progressed, she began to think that the 24-month sentence was disproportionate. The gun that Jamal brandished was a toy gun and it was his first offence.  

Jamal and I spent some of each day of the trial handcuffed together and, as we talked, I learned that Jamal had dropped out of school to support his mother because his father had been sentenced to Robben Island, the same prison where Nelson Mandela was a political prisoner. Jamal had later attended night classes and obtained his Matriculation certificate. When his girlfriend had fallen pregnant, he had found a job to support her and his little girl. Two months before the robbery, Jamal had lost his job. He was angry and desperate because he could no longer support his young family, so he went out one Saturday night, smoked Dagga (Cannabis) and drank heavily and then robbed the man while he was stopped at a traffic light. 

If the Magistrate wanted to deviate from the sentencing guidelines, she was required to write an opinion explaining her reasons. She explained that her decision to cut the sentence in half and attach it to a further suspended sentence once the R500 had been repaid, was because no-one had been physically harmed and because Jamal had been under enormous pressure. It was his first offence and he was remorseful. 

Aristotelian Phronesis (practical wisdom) was at the heart of the Magistrate’s decision. It was only right that she used her skill to craft a suitable punishment, tailor-made for Jamal and his circumstances. We have the right to expect our judiciary to be skilled in sorting out competing aims and weighing up a range of factors. Jamal deserved to be punished but he also had the right to be rehabilitated. And it was important that the sentence did minimal harm to his young family and that he had the chance to be reintegrated into the community. 

Aristotle taught his students that merely “knowing the facts” was not enough. The Magistrate needed more than knowledge of the law and all the rules that legal professionals must follow. She needed wisdom. She needed practical moral skill. Aristotle stressed two things that are essential to cultivating this wisdom – deliberation ((boulēbouleusis) and the ability to perceive or judge what is morally relevant in a particular situation. Just like in medicine or navigation, it is necessary to consider, on each occasion, what is appropriate. Working this out depends on moral perception. 

We are not all Magistrates, holding the lives of offenders in our hands. But as teachers, we do have the opportunity to cultivate Phronesis in our students, instilling in them the habit of constructive dialogue in a context of academic rigour. We can teach, as Aristotle did, that “knowing the facts” is not enough, that weighing things up and questioning assumptions, that taking time to reach the best decisions is mature wisdom; and mature wisdom is the key to finding the solutions to all the challenges that face us. 

Father Mark Smith