Ever since someone said, “an eye for an eye,” humanity has recognized a need for some system of dealing out justice. Some justice system is a prerequisite for government, whether it is fair or not. In America, we founded a system of justice where the people decide who is innocent, who is guilty and, in some cases, even what their punishment should be.
On Nov. 7, voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 83, which sets strict new laws about what registered sex offenders can do once they are released from prison, including restricting them from living within 2,000 feet of a school and requiring them to wear devices that will allow them to be tracked by a GPS system for the rest of their lives. The passage of Proposition 83 was not exactly a surprise. Pretty much anything that will impose more punishments on those who commit crimes is a sure thing. But was it the right thing?
The arguments for and against Proposition 83 have been discussed at length, even in this newspaper. But the problem is not with Proposition 83, but rather our society’s mindset on crime in general. The way we think, if you shoplift for the first time you get a slap on the wrist, community service, a stern talking to, and, hopefully, you do not do it again. If you rob a bank you get sent to jail for a number of years, then get released on parole, and live the rest of your life with that experience, hopefully never doing it again. At least, that is the way it used to be.
Recently, society in general has said more and more often that there will be no tolerance for criminals. Proposition 83 is just the most recent example. In 1994, voters approved the Three Strikes Law. If someone has two prior felonies and is convicted of a third, that third felony can be punished with a sentence of 25 years to life in prison. Now, because of a quirk in the California legal system, if you have been convicted of two felonies, shoplifting could get you life in prison. Voters decided not to change that law two years ago.
Since the law’s introduction, repeat offenses have dropped dramatically. But our prison population in California has also quadrupled since then, and we keep trying to shove more in. While the Three Strikes Law has reduced crime, it has also created an incredibly overwhelmed justice system. It is like having a leaky roof. Sure, we have put a bucket under the leak and water is not all over the floor now. But the roof is still leaking, and that bucket is filling up. If we do not want water all over the floor, eventually we are going to have to fix that leaky roof.
Increasing the punishment is not enough of a deterrent to stop people from committing crimes. If it were, people would have stopped committing crimes by now. That is not to say we do not need some punishment. Humanity has long recognized a need for justice. People should pay for their crimes, but the American system of justice demands that the punishment fit the crime. Lately, we have let that principle be set on the back burner.
Sex offenders have gotten an especially extreme treatment in this area, and Proposition 83 is illustrative of this. The public, in general, agrees that almost any punishment is not severe enough for those who violate our most private of places. With the passage of Proposition 83, we have told sex offenders that there is no place in our society for someone who commits even one of these offenses.
But is this really the right action to take? Even if they leave our society, they still have to exist somewhere, unless we were to just kill anyone who commits a crime. That seems rather cruel, however, and still wouldn’t stem the flow of crime entirely. Are we really going to get rid of our criminals by saying, “we don’t want you here”? These people could be our brothers and sisters. Our mothers and fathers. Do we really not want these people around?
Some of the most heartwarming things I’ve seen in a long time were the actions taken by the Amish after someone came into their community and killed their brethren before killing himself. Many of us, including myself, would be enraged. Many of us would demand retribution. If the shooter had not killed himself, he would have definitely gotten a death sentence. But that’s just not the way the Amish think. They believe in absolute forgiveness. Even while they were feeling the anguish of losing their children, they reached out to the killer’s family and mourned with them.
While their belief in forgiveness is rooted in religion, it is not something that needs to be based in religion. While society has a commitment to its people to punish bad deeds, society has an equally strong commitment to those it is punishing. They, too, are part of the fabric of society. They are a product of our society. And while we may exclude them from general society for a while, we will eventually need to weave them back in. When we do, we must let go of the past if we are to truly allow them back into society.
This may mean that we need to deal with this person’s issues. This may mean lots of therapy for a great many individuals. This may mean giving up a lot of money we do not want to give up to those who, in reality, need it a lot more than we do. But until we do, we are not going to be able to fix the process of society that created them. In the meantime, we need to find a way to allow them to re-enter society aside from throwing them back into the world from which they came.
I am not saying I have all the answers. I cannot tell you how we are going to fix our criminal justice system. All I am saying is that we need to strive to make it better.