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Should crimes committed many years ago be forgotten?
To forgive is human, to forget, divine. To many, these words of wisdom mean little, especially when the crimes committed are terrible atrocities or have direct personal impact on their lives. It is therefore not surprising that some people feel that crimes committed in the past should not be forgotten, particularly when the criminal has not been trialed, as this would undermine the severity of the criminal's wrongdoings. While they may seem very critical, perhaps even vindictive, their worries are not unreasonable, given that however perfect our judiciary is, often, it is not always possible to undo all the damage that has been done by a criminal. Prevention is always better than the cure, and it is with this in mind that some people are unwilling to pardon crimes which have been committed many years ago. However, this is not always necessary, or even just, and I believe that although crimes should not be forgotten per se, criminals should be forgiven for the crimes they committed in the far past.
In certain instances, a crime may not be uncovered until many years later. This has occurred before in murder cases where new accomplices are discovered only decades later due to advances in technology used to procure forensic evidence. There are also cases where new evidence is shown many years later because the information was previously confidential, such as in the case of the German trails for the Nazi war crimes. In such cases, people often argue that letting a criminal go without trial is equivalent to condoning his misdeeds, and is a travesty of the entire notion of justice. This may result in criminals becoming more daring in their unlawful endeavors as dilatory tactics can vindicate them of their sentences, granting them impunity against the law. A criminal should always atone for his crimes, even If they were committed a long time ago, as after all, justice should stand separate from mundane temporal trifles.
Nevertheless, our judicial systems are only as sound as the men who make it up. The ideal of justice is but an ideal that is far removed from reality. Laws that impose justice are not infallible, and neither can more pragmatic concerns be disregarded. That laws are being amended regularly is testament to this fact. A recent amendment to the law in Singapore, the Criminal Procedure Code, allows judges to give a larger range of verdicts including punishments like corrective work order to criminals reflects this. Also, it shows that time does matter in the courts of law, because social values in a society vary over time, and it is crucial that our punishments for crimes reflect our attitudes and views towards such crimes appropriately. It is for this very reason, after all, that laws differ across countries. In this context, is it still possible to fairly assess a criminal for his crimes in the past?
Furthermore, does it still make sense for criminals to atone for their sins after so long? The ultimate purpose of punishment is to correct the moral faults of a criminal, and after so much time has passed, it is likely that even without the "aid" of law, a criminal may have already changed for the better. (Or he would be a repeat offender, in which case he would probably have been convicted already.) Does further punishment really do any good, other than satisfying the misplaced sense of justice of certain individuals? In addition, how would more practical aspects be reconciled? If a fine is to be a paid, does inflation have to be taken into account? Can testaments made by witnesses still be reliable after so many years? These minor details may border on the captious, but many small matters can hardly be ignored as a whole.
For criminals who have already been trialed, and have served or are currently serving their sentences, many are still unwilling to forget, or even pardon them. This is particularly so for victims of atrocious crimes. Many Chinese, especially the older generations, are still unable to neither forget nor forgive the crimes that the Japanese committed during the Second World War. However, such a mentality is becoming increasingly outdated, and although past crimes have not been forgotten, in all other practical and tangible aspects, they play an insignificant role today. This is particularly true for younger generations who feel detached from such historical events. Younger American Jews for example, are largely detached from the Israel Palestinian conflict, and do not share the opinions of their predecessors. Whether forgetting crimes is necessarily a bad thing is an issue of contention, but it is important to note that often, such negative feelings are widely directed not just at the criminals, but at the groups of people they are close to as well, and this unfair treatment often incites similar responses, all of which culminates in pointless, perpetuated viciousness.
However, simply forgetting a crime is not an option either. Even if a criminal has already served his sentence, a criminal record serves both as a lifelong reminder for the criminal, and as a deterrent for all aspiring law breakers. Furthermore, damage done is sometimes irreparable, and some victims will always remember the suffering that criminals have caused. Crimes committed in the past are also capable of teaching us lessons to avoid inviting similar grief in the future.
Perhaps what is necessary and appropriate is for people to disengage themselves from any predispositions they may have about a crime, and the criminal himself. What is needed is not really for crimes to be forgotten, but for the criminal to be forgiven and judged anew. The Yellow Ribbon Project initiative embodies such a principle. Although a criminal may not be able to undo what he has done, but a magnanimity to be able to accept this unchangeable fact and provide him with a new lease of life will surely make the world a better place.