This week, Donald Trump announced his support for criminal justice reform, receiving praise from both sides of the political aisle. This is a savvy political move by Trump, but many conservatives are confused about whether or not they should support it. For conservatives who are primarily concerned with "culture war" issues, Trump's political success is of utmost importance. And, in order for Trump to be successful, he will need to be seen as a "bipartisan" deal-maker by the time he runs for re-election in 2020. His first press conference after the midterm signaled a willingness to work with Democrats, and the aptly-named First Step Act is Trump's first move in a new, bipartisan direction. For law-and-order conservatives, however, this move is seen as betrayal.
Americans tend to err on the side of mercy, which is why so many on both sides of the aisle support Trump's reform initiative. It is also why the Broward County Sheriff's office implemented a "promise program" designed to be merciful to juvenile offenders. Much of the same rhetoric that justified implementing the "promise program" is being used to justify Trump's First Step Act. Some argue that incarceration hurts families and causes divorce. Others argue that it ruins the lives of criminals who might have been rehabilitated.
A half-century ago, C. S. Lewis pointed out, in an essay called The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment, that Mercy can become tyrannical when it is not tethered to Justice. When a society aims its justice system at rehabilitation (cures for social diseases) rather than retribution (punishment for crimes), it might seem like a move in a humanitarian direction. However, such a move is dangerous, because it undermines the proper justification for the state's monopoly of violence.
In a civilized society, individuals must wait for the state to right any wrongs done against them, and are not allowed to take justice into their own hands. Obviously, some wrongs cannot be easily righted. If someone murders your wife, the government is powerless to bring your wife back to life. However, the justice system does its best to approximate justice by giving to the murderer a punishment that "fits" his crime. A retributive justice system asks, "what does the criminal deserve for the action he has committed?" And the answer to that question sets the parameters for actions the state is permitted to take against him.
But, when a justice system aims at rehabilitation rather than retribution, the state is no longer enacting coercive punishment upon criminals, but is instead enacting coercive healing upon patients. This is an enormous increase in the government's authority. There is nothing wrong with wanting to rehabilitate criminals, of course, but the authority to mandate rehab must rest solely upon the right to enact retribution. The First Step Act does not subordinate retribution to rehabilitation, but it could be a first step down that path.
For those who are interested in C. S. Lewis' full argument, read Lewis's essay or head here for a YouTube illustrated reading.