I am grateful to Dr Critchlow for his comments on my article. He argues that the courts must continue to impose punishment that is not merely a deterrent but retributory, because the victims of crime and their families will otherwise take the law into their own hands and exact retribution themselves. An online commentator made the same suggestion.

I am reminded of a remark made many years ago on the subject of crime by the governor of one of the southern states of the US: ‘We’d better make sure these uppity African Americans [he didn’t use that term] get convicted and executed because if we don’t the Ku Klux Klan will lynch them anyway.’

Did he really say that? No, he did not – not as far as I know. I invented the quote. But he might have done, and if he had bought into the logic of this argument he might have felt justified in doing so. Vigilantism of this kind is a criminal offence and it is surely wrong to ‘buy off’ one lot of potential criminals by inflicting unjustified suffering on someone else.

Of course, it is true that the powers that be could not explicitly renounce retributive punishment overnight, even if they wanted to, because the public would not stand for it. But the public no longer supports the burning of witches. We have made some gradual progress in understanding the human condition, and we could make some more.

Richard Oerton, Bridgwater