It is easy to have sympathy for thieves if they steal from victims we do not know. Should the victims include acquaintances, friends, family or ourselves, our magnanimity wanes. And while our heart strings are plucked by someone who steals bread to feed their family, if Jean Val Jean had stolen to feed a personal drug habit Victor Hugo might not have portrayed him as a tragic hero. When it comes to our attitude about punishing thieves it is pretty much, “Whose ox is getting gored?”
And over the last few thousands of years we Homo sapiens have applied sanctions on thieves that have ranged from, “go and sin no more”, to the death penalty. Those of us with Anglo Saxon DNA can search back just about one thousand years ago and find death for theft to be de rigueur in the areas that became Great Britain. Of course, when a society does not have jails what can you do with someone who has no respect for the property of others?
Also, in today’s world we still have countries where thieves are sometimes flogged or who have their hands amputated on occasion. The Book of Matthew (Chapter 5, verse 30) advises offending thieves to cut off their own hands whereas the Old Testament decrees if one steals food because they are hungry we should not hate them (Proverbs 6:30-31). But Exodus 22: 3-4 declares that a thief who cannot pay restitution should be sold into slavery.
In other words, we humans have tried about every possible penalty from turning the other cheek to execution when it comes to thieves. Usually a first time offender in all legal systems is treated more leniently than a repeat villain. A thief of tender years normally calls for more sympathy than an experienced adult. And a thief who can pay restitution or who appears to be genuinely remorseful fares better than one who is more callous.
Now, Gentle Reader, you may be curious as to why you and I are considering whether it is better to kiss thieves on the top of their heads or to lop their heads off. Well, I confess my own approach to these issues during my ten years as either a prosecuting attorney or a defense attorney has fluctuated greatly, usually based on which side I represented in court. But it has been my forty years as a trial judge that has seen the greatest variation in my attitude toward dealing with thieves. I have tried practically every approach from rehabilitation to retribution. Suffice it to say I have not found a solution to theft; people are still doing it and on a fairly regular basis. My most recent encounter with the phenomenon of someone who has no respect for the property of others involved a friend of mine who had his tractor stolen right out of our pasture next to the cabin where Peg and I live.
Rape and armed robbery are much worse crimes than theft but the sense of being violated and feeling vulnerable is similar with all three. One immediately feels more generally fearful and angry. The one-time sanctity of our home and the confidence our friend had in the security of his property while on our property has been greatly diminished.
I do not ascribe to Dante Alighieri’s punishment for thieves as he set it forth in Circle 8 of his Divine Comedy. However, it does graphically show how mankind may sometimes feel about thieves. Dante portrayed thieves as having their offending hands bound with flying reptiles that also pierce the thieves’ jugular veins causing the thieves to turn to ashes. The thieves are constantly being turned back to their human form then re-subjected to the flying reptiles. Such a vision for punishing thieves is interesting but hardly in keeping with modern penology. However, Dante’s hypothesized punishments for thieves he personally despised do call upon one’s darkest urge for revenge. Of course, revenge may be understandable but it is not justice.
When it comes to justice, if it ever does, for whoever stole our friend’s tractor, we can probably best hope for something less Draconian than Circle 8, say Circle 3, where thieves would spend eternity lying in filthy slush while being constantly pelted with icy rain. However, such a penalty probably should not make it into modern law.