Across the political spectrum, our laws are too focused on punishment
The opinions expressed in the opinion columns are those of the author.
What should the government’s goal be?
This is a question that politicians and philosophers have debated for centuries, but in my opinion the answer is simple. The most basic goal of government should be to help and protect people. It is on this that the whole notion of social contract is based.
However, to want to help people, we must have empathy, a quality that too many of our legislators lack. Too many laws are written with the intention of punishing people rather than helping them.
Criminal justice is probably the area of politics where we see this dynamic the most. Our criminal justice system appears to be designed to be as punitive as possible, at least for certain groups.
Of course, for any system of government to work, laws have to be enforced in one way or another. However, there are too many instances where our criminal justice system has overstepped the bounds of cruelty. I don’t think people should be called “bad people” just because they’ve done bad things, but that is exactly what our system does, especially towards people from under-represented groups.
Take the example of the law of three strikes, which imposes much longer sentences, sometimes life imprisonment, for defendants who have two previous convictions. It is a policy that completely ignores the idea that people can change and regret things they have done before. Everyone does and learn from their mistakes, so there’s no reason to exclude criminals from this group – unless you completely disregard their humanity.
This is exactly what happens when you lock people up and throw away the key. Excessive punishment like this deprives criminals of the opportunity to grow up as a person, which everyone does throughout their lives.
In a related vein, criminal suffrage is another area where the system seems determined to let people’s worst times define them. All states except Vermont and Maine have some sort of restriction on the right to vote of criminals. In some states, they are permanently deprived of their rights. This resulted in millions of people lose their right to vote, of which people belonging to under-represented groups represent a disproportionate amount.
There is no point in this other than unnecessary punishment. Criminals who don’t vote don’t make anyone safer. It comes from a desire to see people punished beyond their set sentences. No one wants the worst things they’ve done to keep getting in their way, even years later.
The people who make these laws have no sympathy for those who want to rebuild their lives after wrongdoing. They are only obsessed with preventing the “bad” from participating in society.
This punitive attitude is not limited to a political field or a political ideology. Look at an invoice that was recently proposed in Illinois, that would force unvaccinated COVID-19 patients to pay their own hospital bills out of pocket. While there should be a strong message about why people need to be vaccinated, negative incentives to this extent are counterproductive and just plain petty.
They are still people after all, and all people deserve affordable medical care, even if they made some stupid decisions that got them to the hospital. The lawmaker who proposed this bill needs to look beyond their own (justifiable) anger and remember that it is actually really sad that people put themselves in the situation. Putting a financial burden on people who are already in pain will not help anyone.
Empathy should be a guiding principle in all legislation. Everyone on the planet makes a myriad of mistakes in their lifetime, criminal or not, and anyone can feel regret for their past actions. No one should be continually punished for their worst times, even people who have done horrible things. Lawmakers should try to remember this more when they legislate.
Adam Cullen is a young student of government and politics. He can be contacted at [email protected]