It was appropriate that yesterday, as Ted Baillieu was putting the finishing touches on his ministry to be sworn in today, my desk calendar featured a quotation from Winston Churchill: “Nothing is more costly, nothing is more sterile, than vengeance.”

Baillieu would do well to keep it in mind, because the law-and-order policies he has promised to implement, risk tilting the balance of the criminal justice system towards vengeance — including such measures as the abolition of suspended sentences (criticised in Crikey by Greg Barns) and an enhanced role for victim impact statements.

Coincidentally, there is an ongoing lesson in the danger of such policies in the current crisis on the Korean peninsula. Provoked by a North Korean artillery attack last week on the island of Yeonpyeong, the South Korean government is resisting calls for negotiations and seems set on a course of revenge.

The difference in scale is great — war in Korea would be a global nightmare, while Victoria’s sentencing policy only affects Victorians, and not even very many of them — but the principle at stake is the same.

Policy needs to focus on the future, not the past; on preventing trouble to come, not on taking revenge for what has already happened.

In most areas we have no trouble appreciating this. We praise forgiveness as a virtue; we encourage those have have been wronged to try to move on rather than dwelling on the past; we have no trouble recognising the villainy of those historical or literary figures who were obsessed by the desire for revenge. We know that Churchill had the right idea.

But when it comes to public policy, these insights too readily desert us. Demagogues demand that governments should defend national prestige even at the risk of war, instead of trying to defuse tensions and seek lasting solutions. Similarly, sentencing policy is too often driven by the desire to punish criminals independently of whether that will actually reduce crime, pandering to the worst instincts of victims rather than the best.

Of course, deterrence has its place in both spheres. Retaliatory attacks may help prevent future adventurism; increasing sentences may deter other potential offenders. But the justification has to look to the future, not the past.

The “victims’ rights” movement has done good work in reducing the alienation that victims sometimes feel in the criminal justice process and putting more focus on compensation. But it risks distorting that process by diverting it away from the social goal of reducing crime to the private goal of revenge.

This is especially the case with the most serious crimes. While we sympathise with their victims, we have to also realise that nothing the justice system can do will be of much use to them; what they need most is to put the crime behind them and get on with their lives. Pursuit of the offender has to be justified not by their interests, but by the interests of society.

Baillieu needs to keep that in mind as he embarks on the task of law reform. And more importantly, South Korea needs to realise that punishing its northern neighbour is no justification for full-scale war.