Different people mean different things by the term justice. I think of the term having at least four meanings or purposes.
- To deter people from committing crimes
- To punish people who committed crimes
- To give crime victims a sense of retribution
- To keep criminals away from society if society expects them to commit crimes again
These four purposes don’t always work in concert. In any case, the United States seems focused more on retribution and punishment than other places. We put more people in jail than any other country, with the possible exception of North Korea, putting us or them in dubious company, depending on how you look at it. Before anyone jumps on me about North Korean prison camps, I’ll remind you of the prevalence of rape in U.S. jails, something people joke about, which I find nearly unbelievable.
America’s passion for retribution and punishment seems, at times, to face an obstacle with the compassion of some people, even for criminals. The public seems to like electing officials who promise to get tough on crime, leading to increasing punishments. I learned at a young age the problem with draconian punishments — that if small crimes lead to huge punishments, someone who commits even a small crime suddenly gets an incentive to commit other crimes since they already face a huge punishment. If, for example, theft carries a life sentence, someone who steals will feel incentive to murder potential witnesses if the expected payoff of killing exceeds the expected risks of someone turning them in.
People may glibly think if the person didn’t want to risk doing the time they shouldn’t have done the crime, but our laws make it impossible for people to avoid committing crimes, even felonies, daily. Besides, sometimes people break laws for reasons many people would consider fair. At one time drinking alcohol was illegal in the U.S., yet was a normal way to enjoy oneself in nearly the entire rest of the world. It’s normal now here too. How wrong would you consider drinking a glass of wine?
Such thoughtfulness results in scaled punishments, which interferes with some politicians’ interests in getting elected by increasing punishments. Voters who realize this problem stop voting for tough-on-crime politicians as punishments exceed their ability to feel human. Also, judges and juries can lessen punishments.
Enter three-strikes laws and other mandatory sentences to override the human element. This page about draconian punishments and at least one organization’s attempts to curb them got me thinking about them and writing this post. When I first read the page I wrote:
It’s a crying shame. Normally that’s an empty phrase, but it describes this.
I can’t imagine reading this and not feeling tears well up.
No sense of what I would call humanity. From what perspective does this make the world a better place?
What am I missing about being human that this fits into that I don’t understand?
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