Sunday, October 9, 2011

Criminal (In)justice

I've mentioned my high regard for New York Times columnist Ross Douthat in an earlier post, and his column from a week ago, a response to the execution of Troy Davis, is a good illustration of his proclivity for advancing the dialogue surrounding seemingly intractable debates by dramatically recontextualizing the issues.
     Cleverly, Douthat never reveals his own opinion about the morality of capital punishment itself. Nevertheless, he crafts a unique critique of death penalty abolitionists, citing the imperative to address what is perhaps a more profound injustice: the abject brutality of our prison system:
Simply throwing up our hands and eliminating executions entirely, by contrast, could prove to be a form of moral evasion — a way to console ourselves with the knowledge that no innocents are ever executed, even as more pervasive abuses go unchecked. We should want a judicial system that we can trust with matters of life and death, and that can stand up to the kind of public scrutiny that Davis’s case received. And gradually reforming the death penalty — imposing it in fewer situations and with more safeguards, which other defendants could benefit from as well — might do more than outright abolition to address the larger problems with crime and punishment in America.

This point was made well last week by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, writing for The American Scene. In any penal system, he pointed out, but especially in our own — which can be brutal, overcrowded, rife with rape and other forms of violence — a lifelong prison sentence can prove more cruel and unusual than a speedy execution. And a society that supposedly values liberty as much or more than life itself hasn’t necessarily become more civilized if it preserves its convicts’ lives while consistently violating their rights and dignity. It’s just become better at self-deception about what’s really going on.
     Douthat may be right that abolishing the death penalty would simply provide cover for a penal system rife with pervasive injustice. Though for the time being this may be a moot point, as a solid majority still favors capital punishment. And it could also be argued that the type of shift in societal views required to catalyze abolition would likely indicate a greater recognition of the humanity of those incarcerated. And therein lies the rub: our dehumanization of those in prison is precisely the reason why both genuine prison reform and abolition of the death penalty are politically impossible. For now.
     In any case, two indisputable realities suggest that our broken system of criminal justice cannot be ignored by people of faith. The first is that the United States incarcerates more people than any other nation on the face of the earth, both in absolute numbers and as a proportion of population, as the chart below (from Dayton Daily News) demonstrates:


For a nation that holds itself up as "a shining city on a hill," this is an abysmal statistic. Either we have in our nation the worst collection of human beings on the planet, or (and I'm going to suggest this is far more likely) we are failing to contend with our citizenry's shortcomings in a sensible way.
     The second reality is that these 2.3 million prisoners are often subjected to conditions that are beneath the dignity of human beings. The non-profit organization Prison Fellowship thoroughly explicates the pervasive and systemic nature of this crisis on its website. It is more than the sexual assaults that Douthat mentions. More than the rampant violence that occurs when we fail to provide the resources necessary to keep order. More than the fact that our prisons now function in lieu of yesterday's mental hospitals. We are mishandling the process of justice at every point: the way we define crime, provide representation, sentence, incarcerate, treat mental health issues, and reintegrate ex-offenders into society. All are in need of substantial reform.
     Some people commit acts for which they must be held accountable. Sometimes the punishment should be harsh, and perhaps sustained over a long period of time--or in extreme cases for the remainder of a criminal's life. But the penalty should never entail lack of mental health care, assault, or rape (or death). Nor should the prison atmosphere rob individuals of the opportunity to develop as human beings in a manner consistent with their punishment. While they are not entitled to luxuries like cable television or gourmet fare, the fundamental spiritual necessities of human beings (not defined in an exclusively religious sense) cannot be taken away. The need to sustain relationships, to maintain physical and mental health, to gain meaning through work or other activities, and to learn about the world should be recognized and accommodated. These are the rights of every person formed in the image of God.
     A foundational tenet of the Catholic faith is that regardless of his actions, no individual ever relinquishes his God-given dignity. That more than two million persons inhabit a system that violates this principle so flagrantly should be a call to arms for all of the faithful. 

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