The other day, Pope Francis yet again caused a bit of a stir:
Pope Francis called for abolition of the death penalty as well as life imprisonment, and denounced what he called a “penal populism” that promises to solve society’s problems by punishing crime instead of pursuing social justice.
“It is impossible to imagine that states today cannot make use of another means than capital punishment to defend peoples’ lives from an unjust aggressor,” the pope said Oct. 23 in a meeting with representatives of the International Association of Penal Law.
“All Christians and people of good will are thus called today to struggle not only for abolition of the death penalty, whether it be legal or illegal and in all its forms, but also to improve prison conditions, out of respect for the human dignity of persons deprived of their liberty. And this, I connect with life imprisonment,” he said. “Life imprisonment is a hidden death penalty.”
The pope noted that the Vatican recently eliminated life inprisonment from its own penal code…
Of course, it was Pope St. John Paul II who first asserted that the death penalty has to go – and I admit that it was this which turned me away from the death penalty. Now, we are being challenged again – but it is a harder pill for people to swallow, even those who oppose the death penalty.
The immediate and rather natural reaction to this is that there appear to be some people who simply cannot live in society – they are so clearly violent and dangerous that no one wishes to risk having them out there to kill again. It is easy to bring to mind people like Ted Bundy and go, “ok, so we won’t kill people like that – but we can’t ever let a man like that out, again!”. This is reasonable. But upon reflection, I’m taking a bit of a different view – and I think I see where the Pope is coming from.
Mercy triumphs over justice – so it goes in James, 2:13. Prior to that, James notes that merciless judgement will be meted out to those who don’t show mercy. In other words, if we are not merciful, no mercy will be shown to us. And, guys and gals, no matter how good any of us think we are, we are all in desperate need of mercy. And, so, while we must have justice, it must always be tempered with mercy. We must always be willing to forgive – yes, even someone like a Ted Bundy sort of killer. To me, this means we must never shut the door upon anyone – even the very worst among us retain a moral claim upon us; perhaps far less than everyone else, but it is still there. Executing someone very firmly shuts the door upon a person – once the person drops though the hang man’s door, there isn’t any chance for that person to redeem himself, nor for us to forgive him. Sending someone to prison for life – without possibility of parole – also shuts the door. Not as firmly as death, of course, but still pretty firmly. A man sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole has little incentive to change – to become contrite and seek forgiveness.
I’ve seen the TV shows of long-term prisoners who are nothing but trouble – they are sent to what amount to prisons within prisons where they are kept in isolation, lest they lash out against guards and other prisoners. To be sure, the sort of treatment these men get is merited – as is the death penalty merited by those who receive it. We’re not accusing anyone of committing an injustice by executing a murderer, or imprisoning for life a hardened criminal. But is such a thing merciful? I’m always reminded here of that conversation between Gandalf and Frodo in The Lord of the Rings:
Frodo: “He deserves death.”
Gandalf: “Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends…”
So, let us not say that we are being cruel or unreasonable in punishing those who do wrong. Other than the rare instance of a complete miscarriage of justice, those who are housed in our prisons have done wrong things – some of them quite horribly wrong. But let us not deal out death in punishment lightly, nor take away all hope from those who we decide not to kill.
It is good to keep in mind why we have life in prison without parole – because back in the 70’s nitwit liberals had essentially set up a situation where even a first degree murderer could be out on parole in as little as seven years. We had case after case of a released murderer doing the same crime again, when had that criminal still been in prison, the second (or third, or fourth) victim would still be alive. Fed up with this nonsense, we went “law and order” and got laws which ensured that the worst criminals would never get out. But because we allowed liberals to err too far one way, it was no justification for us to err the other (and, full disclosure, I backed the implementation of those “no parole” laws). We needed to strike a balance but we went too far the other way.
One of the first changes I would make to criminal justice is to cease imprisoning non-violent offenders. This would allow us vastly more resources in the prison system to deal effectively with the worst criminals. Time spent guarding people in for drug possession or embezzlement is time not spent guarding the violent drug-gang member, you see? If a person wasn’t physically harmed, I’d have it as the rule that no prison time will be imposed (I’d have exceptions for recidivists – someone who is not just a thief, but just keeps on stealing no matter how many times we’ve shown mercy…after a while, its time for such a person to spend some time in jail). I’d have an exception to the no-prison rule for non-violent crimes in regards to those who violate the public trust – elected and appointed officials of our government who violate the law should spend a very, very long time in jail. But for the petty drug possession or the guy who simply jumped bail on a non-violent crime? Find some other way to secure justice – don’t waste jail space. Don’t actually hurt a person, don’t go to jail: general rule.
For violent crimes which are not of a sexual nature or don’t result in death, I’d have a person away for no more than 20 years. For violent acts which are of a sexual nature or result in death, it would still be a life sentence, but with the change that even such a person could, in theory, eventually obtain release – indeed, full pardon under certain circumstances. Here’s how it would work.
If you are sent to prison for a violent crime, your first 10 years are to be spent in, well, what will amount to some pretty miserable conditions. Forget about TV and radio and exercise rooms and cells and so forth. Think in terms of wooden barracks surrounded by electrified barbed wire and food which, while sufficient to maintain health, is plain and monotonous. And work. Lots and lots of work. If necessary, just make-work, but work all the time. Hard, demanding, physical labor – 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, 52 weeks a year. I can think of lots of projects the prisoners can work on – just in making our interstate highways look more artistic with stone work and landscaping can occupy a lot of people in very hard work for many, many years. Others can think of different projects. But even if there’s no project at the moment, then out the prisoners go into the prison yard to break rocks, if nothing else.
Now, naturally, the prisoners so sentenced are going to be inclined to rebel against this regime. But here’s the kicker – if they rebel, if they break the rules (which will include having any contraband, harming any other prisoner or guard, etc) then their ten years in this position starts over again from that day. In other words, if they ever want to get out of this miserable place, then their only way is to behave – and as they buck and kick against it, they can be kept in irons in non-work hours, be given a ball and chain to carry around…things like that which make misery even more miserable…and the prisoners willing to do anything to get relief, even obey the rules. I’m sure they’ll press the envelope, but other than the completely wicked, most will eventually calm down. Especially as even in this 10 years of misery, greater privileges will be assigned to people as the length of their good behavior increases (like, say, being allowed visitors after 1 year of good behavior; being able to shop in a commissary for small luxuries after 3 years…and, of course, fear of losing these small privileges would keep the prisoners in line as time goes on).
After completing 10, the prisoners are then transferred to a regular prison – now they can watch a bit of TV, have a more varied diet, read newspapers; they no longer have to work, but can volunteer for work, for which they’ll be paid 50% of minimum wage, credited to their account for use in the prison commissary, but also for use should they ever get out. Because now they have a chance of getting out – even the worst. Remember, they’ve now behaved themselves for 10, solid years. They didn’t so much as back-talk a guard or even take a swing against another prisoner. These people, in order to just get into regular prison, have behaved better than 99% of the people outside of prison. Clearly, they’ve learned some lessons; if they haven’t learned them, then they’re still doing their endless 10 years breaking rocks until they do. If they get through the ten years in regular prison with no problems – and, remember, a violation of the rules still starts the first 10 all over again…in other words, a man who has spent his 10 and now done 9 in regular prison who, say, attacks a guard will be sent right back to Day One in the 10 years of breaking rocks. Massive incentive to not do anything like that – then we send them to a minimum security prison. A very light regime. A sort of pre-school for parole. Now the prisoner is looking forward to getting out – will he get out? Not for at least 5 more years. Life means you’ll do at least 25 years. But once past the 25 years – and remember, this is now 25 years without having broken a rule; not having broken a law, as it were – based upon the considered judgement of a parole board, a prisoner can be released. Paroled – and if he breaks a law, other than a misdemeanor (you know, speeding or some such), then he’s right back on Day One of the 10 years of breaking rocks. After 10 years of parole, if there’s been no problem, he’s now pardoned. Time is done. Paid his debt to society. See ya (for those sentence to non-life terms, I’d have it start with 5 years breaking rocks – now, it could be that the criminal will do his entire 20 years breaking rocks because he never wises up…at least when he gets out he’ll be 20 years older, hopefully a little wiser and, remember, he didn’t kill anyone).
I think by the combination of not jailing the non-violent and using a very harsh stick with a very nice carrot on the violent, we’ll have the proper mix of justice and mercy. Remember, someone in prison who is just incorrigible is going to live out his days breaking rocks. But even so, once a person gets into the minimum security prison, there is no requirement that he be released. So, maybe a Ted Bundy type would still be kept there if the prison psychiatrists note that he’s still a sociopath and thus a danger. But even for someone like him, its still better than breaking rocks. Obedience still leads to mercy – if not freedom, then at least a bearable regime. And the whole incentive of the system is to learn to obey the rules, and by doing so (hopefully) come to a real understanding of the crime committed, and genuine contrition for having committed it. And for someone who is in prison but who kills, we still have the death penalty available, at need.
Anyways, that is what I think would be a good system. What do you think? I’m really interested to hear because I do think we have to consider carefully what we’re doing and what we want to accomplish as regards criminal justice.