Absolution and Responsibility

On October 2nd of 2021, The Boston Globe editorial board urged both the operators of the state’s penal system and the state legislature to consider— or, in the case of the legislature, to mandate — that prisoners (like murderers) whose sentences stipulate no possibility of parole be, nonetheless, offered parole anyway.

Their reason for proposing such leniency was that the current system

…provide[s] no meaningful off-ramp for those who have attempted to lead exemplary lives behind bars…

That is, it was an argument in favor of rehabilitation leading to redemption and forgiveness.

Their justification for presuming such a policy to be not merely ethically laudable but both ethically and socially acceptable was more prosaic: that such prisoners are “graying” and that, in the words of their editorial’s title,

Elderly prisoners pose little risk…

In other words, they argued that there is no point in continuing to keep such people behind bars because the goal of such imprisonment — protecting public safety — had already been achieved.

As is often the case when I see this subject come up, I thought they had missed something rather fundamental.  I wrote this as a letter to the editor.  It has been nearly a week since it was submitted and I have heard nothing back from them and seen no other letters on the subject in their pages.  At this point, I presume they don’t plan to publish it (or anything equivalent), so I am posting it here.

Note:  Since I am posting it here, I took the liberty to enhance and enumerate the main points a bit.  That makes it nearly 50% larger than the largest submission (200 words) The Globe says they will accept for publication (some papers, e.g. The New York Times, have more stringent limits, like 150 to 175 words) and, therefore, somewhat larger and more well-honed than the original (it has also benefited from a week of editorial fine-tuning).  So, this is not exactly what was submitted (and not published) in the heat of the original inspiration and on a self-imposed same-day deadline.  It does, however, stick to the same primary argument and maintain the original structural flow.  The changes are embellishments and elucidations, not reconsiderations or augmentations.

It also illustrates the challenges of providing any kind of refined argument in a letter to the editor.  Those are structured to emphasize simple pith and emotional resonance, not subtlety and nuance and a chain of reasoning…

2 October 2021

To the editors:

Ref: “Elderly prisoners pose little risk, so why won’t the state let some of them free?” (2 October 2021)

Suppose you are right, that most of these “lifers” pose little risk to the community.

Arguing that they should, as a consequence, be set free ignores half the purpose of the justice system — to wit, “justice”.

A life sentence without parole is not intended merely to protect the public from potential malefactors. It is also — arguably primarily — intended to rebalance a moral scale that has been tipped out of balance by a horrific act of evil. The condemned are not simply potential and ongoing threats to society: they have, first and foremost, taken or destroyed something precious and irreplaceable.

The stipulation in their original sentencing, that they should not be paroled, had nothing to do with whether or not they were likely to do so again; rather, it had wholly to do with our need for an equitable accounting of the severity of their offenses, both as part of a moral transaction and as a deterrent to others who would consider similar paths. To nullify or minimize that sentencing because we feel bad about its effect, in the moment or at some later time, is to undermine its moral intent; and, to do so thereby discounts the moral severity of the original crime.

Among the civilizing aspects of modern culture is the fact that ancient traditions of personal retribution have been supplanted by a socially-administered system for public accountability. Victims and their families may no longer take the law into their own hands by seeking vengeance on predators.  Instead we, as a society, promise to see justice done on their behalf.

But that is a compact that goes both ways:  if society demands authority over the administration of justice, then it also assumes responsibility for it.  If we have promised to see justice done, then delivering anything short of justice is a breach of that promise.

Within such a system, justice demands that sentences we assign are and should be proportionate to the moral severity of the crimes committed. Ensuring, then, that those proportionate sentences are, indeed, carried out is how we fulfill society’s moral obligation to the victims.

Note that, although I take a hard line about the purpose and severity of punishment — and about a certain resoluteness in its implementation — I am not of the opinion either that the justice system is perfect or that neither redemption nor forgiveness are ever possible.  That is why sentences for lesser crimes than murder are not indefinite.  And that is why Governors and Presidents are given the authority to grant clemencies and pardons — because, sometimes, there are circumstances that deserve an exception.

But it is appropriate and morally necessary that such actions are, indeed, exceptional.  They should not be inevitable, or even common.  That would be unjust…

© Copyright 2021, Augustus P. Lowell


For reference, here is a similar article (from 24 years ago) that addresses, specifically, the death penalty rather than punishment more generally:

Why the Death penalty?


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