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    Don Stemen

Compassion and the criminal justice system

Posted on: April 16th, 2013 by Don Stemen

Over the semester my criminal justice and criminology capstone class has been debating a number of policies — drug legalization, gun control, stop and frisk practices (among others).  These policies generally produce strong arguments on both sides of the debate and students recognize the difficulty of balancing competing priorities.  The potential harmful effects of substance abuse and drug trafficking are balanced against the economic and social costs of the war on drugs and the sense of individual autonomy.  The constitutional right to bear arms and the human right to self protection are weighed against the right to be free of the threat of gun violence and the potential for vigilantism.  The demand for public safety and the need for effective law enforcement are assessed in light of the realities of racism and racial disparities in law enforcement and constitutional protections against arbitrary searches.

Two policies, however, produced very little balanced debate in class — California’s three strikes law and the civil commitment of sex offenders.  California’s three strikes law requires a sentence of twenty-five years to life for any individual convicted of a felony who has two prior serious or violent felony convictions.  Civil commitment laws allow the state to commit a convicted sex offender to a secure mental health facility for an indefinite period after she or he has already served the imposed prison sentence.  The policies were proposed by state legislatures as mechanisms to ensure public safety by either removing individuals from society or by deterring individuals from committing repeat offenses; although not proposed as such, these policies also punish harshly and well beyond either historical norms of sentencing or the limits currently in place for any underlying offense.

The class response to these policies was very one-sided. The class valued the potential public safety benefits of  these policies, arguing that the economic and social costs of these policies were justified given the immense harms that could be avoided by their application.  Students maintained that the failure of traditional responses to repeat criminals and sex offenders warranted a harsher approach.  They supported the retributive aspect of the laws, arguing that some crimes are so horrible they deserve sentences that permanently remove individuals from society.  And, in the end, many students supported these policies because they felt the individuals subject to these laws deserved no sympathy.

“But,” I asked the class, “is there no place for sympathy in the criminal justice system? What about compassion?”  Sympathy is an understanding of someone else’s suffering; compassion is a strong feeling of sympathy for the suffering of others and a desire to help them.  Although we are likely to have sympathy for victims of crime and to seek a compassionate criminal justice system that helps those victims, it is more difficult to have sympathy for individuals who commit repeat violent or sex offenses and more challenging to construct a compassionate criminal justice system that helps those individuals.  Compassion does not imply that individuals are not held accountable for criminal conduct; however, compassion does require an evaluation of society’s responses to that conduct — the suffering those responses inflict on the convicted, their families, and the community and society’s responsibility to limit that suffering. But that is the challenge I posed to students.  As soon-to-be graduates of Loyola, I asked them to consider how Loyola’s mission of social justice (and Christian values generally) should inform their views about a compassionate criminal justice system.  What would a compassionate criminal justice system look like?


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