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piracy, sentencing, international law, deterrence

Subject Categories

Comparative and Foreign Law | Conflict of Laws | Criminal Law | International Law | Law


This Article examines the sentences imposed by courts around the world in prosecutions of Somali pirates captured on the high seas. Somali piracy has become perhaps the highest-volume area of international criminal law by national courts. As with other international crimes, international law is silent on the subject of penalties. The large number of parallel prosecutions of offenders from a single international "situation" offers an empirical window into the interactions between international and national law in municipal courts; into factors affecting punishment for international crimes and the hierarchy of international offenses; and of course into potential concerns with the current model of punishing piracy.

Using a new data set of all Somali piracy sentences in foreign courts, the Article finds that the global average sentence for piracy is 16 years, equivalent to the average penalties for more serious human rights offenses in international courts. Yet few pirates receive the "average" sentence. The Article finds massive variance in sentences imposed in Somali pirate cases around the world, ranging from four years to life for substantively similar conduct. There are roughly two kinds of sentencing jurisdictions -- lenient and strict. The former includes European countries, the latter primarily the United States and Asian states. The gulf in sentencing between these two rough groups is quite significant. Finally, regression analysis of particular sentencing factors shows that the particular characteristics of the offenses account for some, but not the majority of variation in sentences. Most variation that can be accounted for can be attributed the characteristics of the prosecuting state, not the prosecuting crime.