What might a genuinely Christian and conservative approach to prison reform look like?

27 Aug

From Ryan Mulvey (excerpt):

We should be careful, however, to avoid an exclusively utilitarian approach to prison reform.  Making government less costly and more effective is a worthy goal, but insufficient by itself.  Utilitarianism fails to attend to the underlying problems of our depersonalized legal system.  It fails to recognize the further harm that our institutions perpetrate upon victims, offenders, and their families.  And it fails to appreciate the final end of public justice.

Instead, we need a humane approach to prison reform.  We need to recognize the individualized harm and the social disruption that crime causes, as well as the concomitant obligations that offenders impose upon themselves to take responsibility for their actions and to “right their wrongs.”  Our humane approach must recognize that man does not exist in some atomistic fashion, but is, by nature, a social animal who requires interconnectedness with others to flourish.  Criminal acts disrupt the attainment of this ideal state of affairs.

We must adopt something of a phenomenological approach to the reality of crime, considering the position of the actual victim and tempering the fiction of the State qua “injured party.”  Heretofore, prisons have been an essential part of the public response to perceived public offenses.  A murderer, for example, is not sent to prison simply because he has taken an innocent life, but because he has shown utter disregard for the positive prescripts of the law, offended public sensibilities as to what is “right” and “wrong,” and demonstrated contempt for the inherent value of human life.  While approaching crime in this manner is not unjust, it is incomplete.

Admittedly, wrongdoers upset the “balance of [social] advantages between the criminal and the law-abiding,” as John Finnis proposed.  And the political community deserves some form of satisfaction for that transgression.  But a criminal’s selfish and wrongful exercise of free choice also affects his victims, and their families, on a much more intimate level.  The law should aspire to address these particularized instances of injustice.  Yet, as the system exists today, such resolution is frequently impossible.

Human beings are inherently dignified and, consequently, possess certain rights.  Government exists only to preserve these rights and ensure a free space within which individuals might exercise them.  In the context of criminal justice, offenders have a right to be treated as subjects, to be punished according to their moral desert, that is, in proportion to their offenses.  Moreover, they should be permitted, and encouraged, to “repair” the harm they have caused.  Victims, and their families, have a right to be made whole, to have the wrong committed against them made “right.”  Insofar as the State incarcerates wrongdoers for interminable periods according to arbitrary mandatory guidelines and in ghastly conditions, or punishes the perpetrators of victimless “crimes” to the same degree as those who have truly harmed others, then the State has failed to respect the dignity and rights of all those implicated in any instance of crime.  More often than not, prison becomes a punishment beyond what is deserved.

If we were to adopt a humane approach to criminal justice, prisons, as well as many other institutions, would be transformed.  In dealing with offenders, the State’s first priority would be financial restitution, or the public enforcement of an offender’s obligation to repair his victims to the status quo ante.  When offenders are indigent, or monetary damages are insufficient, the State—either through its own means or vis-à-vis other non-governmental institutions—would facilitate non-monetary reparation, or even some form of reconciliation.  When incarceration is the only option, it would no longer be an end unto itself, but a means towards a greater goal of metanoia, or change in character.  Criminals would be guided to internalize shared norms of community and to deepen their appreciation for the consequences of their actions.  While this might require some investment on the front end in building the requisite “infrastructure,” it would ideally save taxpayer dollars in the long term.

But we would not stop there.  A truly humane approach to prison reform would require the comprehensive reform of the entire criminal justice system.  We would stop sending non-violent offenders to federal penitentiaries.  And we would certainly abandon mandatory sentencing guidelines.  Legislators would be pressured to exercise restraint in the crafting of penal codes, and subsidiarity would have wrongdoers punished at the local level, and outside of prison, when effective and practicable.  Such changes would immediately improve the conditions of our prisons and ease the overcrowding which has overwhelmed the system.

This humane approach should not be misunderstood.  Prisons need to exist and criminals should still suffer punishment.  Incarceration should hardly be a pleasant experience.  Unfortunately, some individuals are seemingly incapable of rehabilitation and predisposed to criminality.  We need prisons to handle the punishment of such offenders.  Furthermore, as I have previously suggested, capital punishment may also be defensible, if not a requirement of justice, in certain limited instances.  The ultimate goal of reform should not be to create utopia, or to “immanentize the escathon,” but simply to reaffirm the value of practical reason in the administration of criminal justice.

Financial considerations are valid, but should be ancillary to our aspiration for humane institutions that treat all men as dignified.  Utilitarianism neglects the necessary philosophical groundwork for truly effective reform.  Smaller government need not be accomplished simply through the slashing of the budget.  As Edwin Meese said, “government must perform its public safety functions within a framework of liberty and justice.”  This framework of liberty and justice, I submit, requires that we attend to the inherent dignity of human persons, and the real consequences of crime.  The men that we imprison are men, not animals.  If we forget that, or forget this framework, any attempt at reform will fail.


Ryan Mulvey lives and works in the Washington, DC area. He holds a BA in history and political science from the University of San Diego, and a MA (Philosophy) and JD from Boston University.  Mr. Mulvey can be contacted at rpmulvey@gmail.com

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