Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Rethinking Criminal Justice in a Civilized Society

When someone is convicted of a crime in our society, the operative focus in sentencing is typically punishment/retribution and that focus is carried out within the prison setting.  The one slight exception to this regards the death penalty.  Many states no longer impose the death penalty regardless of the severity of the crime,

In a recent New Yorker piece, Jeffrey Toobin ends by declaring the death penalty  "an absurdity in a civilized society." That "no technology can render that process any less grotesque."  And thus he argues for the abolition of the death penalty.

While I am a card-carrying, certified Liberal, I beg to differ with Mr. Toobin and those who follow his thinking.  I believe that in any society, even the most civilized (and I question whether ours qualifies as that, but that's another matter), there is a proper place for the death penalty, carefully deliberated and administered as humanely as possible.

There are some acts that are so cruel, so inhumane, done with such total disregard for the value of human life, that there is no appropriate penalty other than the death penalty.  Not as a deterrent to such acts in the future, but because society needs to say that some acts are so beyond the pale that they deserve the ultimate penalty, death.  That is part of what makes a society civilized.  

While much attention is placed on the issue of the death penalty in our civilized society, very little attention is given to the nature of prison time served by a typical convict and how that meshes with the concept of a civilized society.  The typical prison is a dead zone where people languish in boredom and where the disposition to commit crime is actually increased with the result that we have a very high rate of recidivism, with the released person often committing even more serious crimes.

If the proper context for the debate on punishment is a civilized society, and I think that is the correct context, then I would argue that if a crime does not warrant the death penalty, then rehabilitation should be the predominant motivator, not retribution, not punishment.  That is another part of what defines a society as civilized, and we are clearly totally lacking in that.  

Our society should want to make the criminal whole in every sense of the word so that he or she not only does not commit crime when he is released but becomes a benefit to his immediate family and society.  We are all, after all, God’s children; if someone goes astray it is not because there is something inherently within him or her that is bad, but because he has been damaged growing up by the contact, the experiences, he has had with the larger culture and often even his immediate family.  This does not absolve someone of responsibility, but it should inform how the system, how a civilized society, interacts with someone who has committed a crime.

Our current system harms the individual and harms society.  It is a lose-lose situation.  The goal of rehabilitation is not only civilized, but it is in society’s best interest.  And it is possible.