The Penalties for Piracy

Oceans Beyond Piracy project released last month a discussion paper on the penalties imposed by prosecuting nations on arrested pirates. According to the study, ten nations on four continents have convicted Somalis who were involved in piracy and armed robbery at sea which began in 2008, and at least six other nations have cases pending. Any nation can arrest suspected pirates on the high seas yet international law defines only the crime and not the penalty to be imposed upon the accused individual.

Current piracy prosecutions have led to a massive cross-national variance in both actual and possible punishments. The cross-jurisdictional differences appear to have less to do with the underlying conduct or culpability of the pirates than with variations in the municipal statutes, sentencing norms, and judicial views of the nations that happen to take custody of the pirates.

Eugene’s Kontorovich paper presents the first global empirical study of the penalties for piracy. It compiles an original data set of sentences imposed on Somali pirates outside of Somalia. It examines the sentences in relation to the characteristics of the particular crimes as well as other factors. Research revealed that the sentences imposed on pirates for similar crimes range from four years to life in prison. The average sentence globally is 16 years which is quite high when compared with sentences administered by international tribunals for more severe international offenses such as genocide and war crimes. Yet the average belies a massive variance across jurisdictions, with European nations and Kenya giving sentences that are one-third to one-half the global average and the US imposing sentences several times longer. The disparity in sentencing raises the issue of equity among defendants, particularly because the defendants are all engaged in similar conduct but their punishments depend on where they happen to be tried.

The study also contains some interesting information regarding the time of the sentences by region as well as the the time of the sentences in comparison to the severity of the crime.


 Min. Sentence    Max. Sentence    Mean
 Global    4.5  60  18.85
 Europe  5  30  9.75
 United States  30  60  29.00
 Regional  4.5  60  23.88


 Level of violence    Min. Sentence    Max. Sentence    Mean
 Attempt    5  20  7.13
 Shots fired    4.5  60  8.59
 Detention    5.5  34  21.88
 Assault/injury    5  24  29.50
 Death    13  60  34.33

Source:  Oceans Beyond Piracy project: Penalties for Piracy

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