Monday, June 27, 2011

Morality in the Criminal Justice System

Sorry it's been over a month sine I've last posted. I stink; there is no valid explanation. However, I wanted to post this quick piece by William Galston about the government's decision to deny a prisoner's request to visit his dying father and subsequently attend his funeral. As Galston writes, although the prisoner in this story is Jonathan Pollard, the criminal's name is less important than the rights that prisoners, as people, are (or at least should be) owed in our society:
This is, of course, Jonathan Pollard’s story. But I presented it anonymously because it shouldn’t matter whose story it is. Pollard is a prisoner, but he is still a human being. Honoring our parents by burying them appropriately is one of the defining duties of our humanity. Preventing a human being from discharging that duty is an elemental wrong.

Governments typically deal in aggregates and make decisions affecting millions. Sometimes, however, it comes down to an encounter between state power and a single individual. I do not claim that the moral principles that shape relations among individuals transfer neatly to the acts of public authorities. There is a difference, even if we argue about the specifics of the distinction. Still, basic precepts of decency and mercy do not lose all force when one moves from private to public status.

The Secretary of State and the Attorney-General owe us an explanation. In fact, the President of the United States owes us an explanation. My question is simple: What considerations of public safety, or national security, or international relations were so weighty as to override the dictates of simple humanity?

I do not know whether it is standard practice in the U.S. penal system to allow prisoners to attend their parents’ funeral. If it isn’t, it should be. Nor do I know whether the Israeli government prevents some Palestinian prisoners from attending funerals, as Palestinian spokesmen have recently charged. If that is the case, the Israelis should reexamine their policy and ask themselves whether national security truly requires it.
I'm hoping to use the next couple of blog posts to write more about the nature of the criminal justice system. I want to explore the current system as I see it (spoiled alert: NOT GOOD, GUYS); what are its goals? How close are we to achieving those goals? (Another spoiled alert: NOT CLOSE AT ALL.) But more importantly, I want to focus on my ideal vision of what a criminal justice correction system should look like. Obviously, I'm not an expert, but I hope to explore some of these ideals in subsequent posts.

(Speaking of posts I want to write, let this be a checklist of things I won't get to:
1. The Wal-Mart Supreme Court case.
2. This 1939 Atlantic article about a non-Jewish woman's marriage to a Jewish man.


  1. Random whatsit:

    Prisons in US expand/build new edifices based on 3rd grade reading scores. As in, the number of basic/non-proficient readers in a state determine how much floor space a new prison gets.


  2. I legit have a draft email with the link of the wal-mart case telling you to blog about it (I kept forgetting to send it). Twinsies!