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  • Norman Young

C. S. Lewis Critiques Criminal Justice Reform


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 gove