The story of the nine-year-old hanged in the 18th century for stealing a loaf of bread is probably just that – a story. But there was a significant toughening in penal policy over the latter half of that century, especially as regards theft, with a number of extra crimes added to the list meriting execution.
Deportations were also common for even fairly minor offences. They were troubled times. The French Revolution was playing out across the Channel, and the rich in the UK, who owned almost all the property, were worried about the masses one day coming for their share.
This is the way law and penal policy works. Sentencing reflects the social concerns of the time, which can sometimes seem bizarre and shocking to future onlookers. Two other examples. The harsh sentences handed out in the 1960s to mild drug offenders, especially in the US – several years in prison for the contents of a couple of spliffs.
Society was running scared of a counter-culture that did not share its values. One of the most obvious differences that set it apart from that mainstream was the use of drugs. Cf the Oz trial here.
Today, any racial element to a crime means it will be treated more seriously. If someone is beaten up for the colour of their skin, the perpetrator will be treated more harshly than one who committed the same offence after taking exception to, say, their posh accent.
Both are a form of discrimination. But in a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society where a lot of different races and religions have to rub along together, anything that makes the process more difficult is anathema, and treated accordingly by the courts. Probably rightly.
Tom Hayes worked for a number of City banks, and seems to have misbehaved at all of them. He has just been given 14 years for rigging the key Libor rate. The sentence is wildly disproportionate and will probably be reduced on appeal, perhaps to a more reasonable seven years.
He would probably have got less had he stabbed to death a colleague on the dealing floor. It is not even possible to work out who lost out because of his misdeeds, or by how much.
It does suggest that, seven years after the financial crisis started, sentencing policy is beginning to reflect the public mood towards those seen to have caused it. Hayes is largely blameless in this respect. His actions had nothing to do with the roots of the crisis, though his behaviour typifies the sort that went on elsewhere and did cause it.
Not a good time to be an errant banker, then. Though in that late 18th century, they and their sort would probably have ended up on the gallows.