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What is Our Philosophy of Justice?


In this post, I plan to use the story of a 54-year old white man to launch a discussion on our country’s racist and unjust incarceration system.

First, I want to talk about my son Tim. Now a senior in high school, Tim has been trying to teach me about modern music. On Sunday, he had me listen to a new artist, Rex Orange County, while we were driving in the car. Check it out; the music is not bad. He also shared a couple of songs by rap artist Kendrick Lamar. I will need some more time to acclimate to that.

The other day, Tim also felt compelled to educate me about the American penal system. The impetus for our conversation was the biggest non-Washington story last week, the reported sexual abuse by former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University sports medicine doctor Larry Nassar, and his subsequent sentencing to up to 175 years in prison.

There are a number of facets to this story. How could a doctor serially molest dozens of girls and young women before USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University did anything about it? Why does it take so many stories of abused females for society to believe the allegations against one man? How can these girls and women move forward with their lives in a positive way after what happened to them?

I feel that other writers can address the issues of sexual harassment and molestation with more expertise and sensitivity. For the purposes of this post, I want to focus on the prison sentence Nassar received.

Tim’s feeling was that the sentence was overly excessive. What’s the point, he asked, of putting someone in jail for the rest of their life, with no hope of any other option? Isn’t a sentence of more than one’s lifetime the equivalent to a life sentence, which is itself equivalent to a sentence of death? For that’s what the system is saying—We sentence you to die in prison.

Due to the heinous nature of his crimes, Nassar makes a particularly unsympathetic example. Why shouldn’t he be sentenced harshly after all that he did? And the reason he received so many years as his penalty was because of the multiple counts in this case; that’s how sentencing works. This was my response to Tim, as I tried to reason that some people’s actions are so wrong that there are no other options; they need to be kept away from the public at large, and the things they did make them essentially unredeemable.

Tim pushed back. Should we leave even villains like Nassar with no hope? What’s the point? What’s the purpose of their future lives in prison? Aren’t these people citizens? Don’t we owe them something, especially given others at least partially to blame, not least of all the sports institutions, the universities, and law enforcement?

If Tim ever takes a college class in criminal justice, or even goes to law school, he will have a refined framework to grapple with these issues. But from his perspective, with the clarity of youth, he is not wrong. He is essentially seeking to understand what philosophy underlies our judicial and penal system,

There are three broad reasons to incarcerate someone: (1) for public safety—to get dangerous people away from those to whom they may do harm, (2) for punishment and deterrence—to demonstrate how we feel about a criminal’s actions and to dissuade others from committing the same crimes, and (3) rehabilitation—to give convicted criminals the opportunity to improve themselves while in prison, and hopefully be better off, if and when they are released.

For someone whose crimes are as awful as Nassar’s (or Manson, Sirhan Sirhan, David Berkowitz, John Wayne Gacy, etc.), we focus on #s 1 and 2 above—keep them locked up forever and deter others from future acts. But if deterrence really worked well, we wouldn’t have such crimes being committed, so essentially all we are doing is making sure these folks are completely removed from society.

But what about your average run-of-the-mill criminal, one of over 2 million currently incarcerated in federal, state, or local jails? Have we given up on them too? As the Prison Policy Initiative reports:

  • 1 in 5 incarcerated people are locked up for a drug offense; is jail really the best place for them to get better?

  • Most incarcerated youth are jailed for non-violent offenses

  • 58% of the prison population is Black (39%) and Latino (19%), though they make up 16% and 13%, respectively, of the US population

  • Over 840,000 people are on parole. Along with probation, this is a way in which people remain in the system, even for minor crimes. Small parole or probation violations can cause people to be re-incarcerated. Like the overall system in general, this largely traps up young men of color in a cycle of imprisonment.

A number of voices have begun to rethink crime and punishment and reduce prison populations. This includes the Koch Brothers, Heritage Foundation, and American Conservative Union on the right and the ACLU and Center for American Progress on the left. Now, even our current president may have seen the light. At last week’s Republican Party retreat, he said:

We can reform our prison system to help those who have served their time get a second chance at life. I’ve watched this, and I’ve seen it, and I’ve studied it, and people get out of prison, and they made a mistake—and not all, some are very bad, but many are very good—and they come home and they can’t get a job. It’s sad, they can’t—they can’t get a job . . .

Unfortunately, his Attorney General doesn’t seem to have gotten the message. Not only has AG Sessions instructed federal prosecutors to seek the most serious offense when charging potential criminals, but his department is also looking to increase the number of individuals in privately run prison institutions—places with the incentive to have as many prisoners as possible and treat them as horribly as they can.

The current president and his Attorney General have often failed to see eye-to-eye in the past year, but on this one, I hope they get their stories together—and here I have to side with the current president (unless and until he changes his mind).

So Tim, your motivations and opinions are right, and are bolstered by many others who have thought about this issue. Larry Nassar may not be an ideal test case, but all levels of our criminal justice system need to develop fair pathways toward rehabilitation. This is more than morally just; this is good economics.

I appreciate my son for helping me think through this issue. Now, if only he can find a way to help me appreciate Kendrick Lamar.

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