Whether dressed in the black gown or the orange jumpsuit, and whether cheering the elephant or riding the donkey, many Americans agree that the judicial system needs to be reformed. Why? The great problem of the modern justice system is that it is neither just, nor merciful, nor efficient.
Let’s begin with some simple definitions. Our linguistic currency for this discussion is justice and mercy. By ‘justice,’ I mean ‘receiving what is deserved.’ By ‘mercy,’ I mean ‘not receiving what is deserved.’ Justice refers to the full force of the penalty, the ‘heavy hand of the law.’ Mercy refers to an abbreviation of the penalty, stemming from kindness and concern. Justice cares for what is right; mercy cares for individuals.
The judicial system is not just because it does not apply the penalty to the crime. I’m talking about the penalty that the criminal deserves, not just what is written in the lawbook. When drunk drivers walk away repeatedly with warnings, we recognize injustice. These are crimes that deserve a harsh penalty. When child abusers receive probation, we recognize that the penalty was not applied. We know, instinctively, that these crimes deserve harsh punishment.
The system is not merciful because mercy springs from care and concern. There is nothing merciful about a prison system that teaches people how to be better criminals. Or, to use a situation that I know personally, a minor can commit just about any form of assault and battery in some places, without any punishment by the government, simply because the criminal is a juvenile. (In this case, ‘juvenile’ can mean 15 years old, and ‘assault and battery’ can mean violent death threats, significant property damage, and physical battery). No, this is not merciful – even it claims to be ‘kindness’ to a ‘child’ – because it does not care about the people involved.
Unwilling to apply justice, and unable to apply mercy, the system reverts to a complex web of regulations, codes, and legal secrets that require a lawyer’s navigation. (We don’t live in days, like the past, when you could be your own lawyer). Vast sums of money are required to make sense of this cryptic system; billions of dollars are levied through fines, settlements, and court costs. The more heinous criminals sometimes end up prison, but not because prison will reform them. Prison just removes these people from society – and it is very expensive. Thanks to you, taxpayer, the average state government spends $91 per inmate, per day.
If the system isn’t just, isn’t merciful, and isn’t efficient, then what is it? It is profitable. Ancient Egyptian scribes had a vested interest in hieroglyphics – they were so complicated that only scribes could read, which kept the scribes in business. Similarly, the entire legal and political professions have a vested interest in an inefficient judicial system that hemorrhages money.
How do we respond?
First, study justice and mercy. These are concepts that are rooted in the Judeo-Christian religious tradition. Learn what they mean. In Christian theology, justice is learned as we contemplate the badness of a crime and the goodness of God – in perspective, justice doesn’t seem ‘mean-spirited’ but ‘appropriate.’ We learn mercy when we see how well God treats us (most famously, by sending His Son Jesus so that we can receive mercy). Learn these concepts. Teach them to others.
The problem of the judicial system is that it ran away from the Constitution – the judicial system is important if we are ever going to ‘establish justice,’ ‘ensure domestic tranquility,’ and ‘promote the general welfare.’ Understanding the value of the Constitution is the second way that we can work to change the system.
Finally, we need some gifted, visionary, strategic individuals to study the judicial system in-depth, analyzing the law codes, diagnosing the deep problems, and creating innovative strategies to redirect the system. The judicial system didn’t decay in one day, and it certainly won’t be fixed in one election. The only way to reform this system is through careful, strategic planning – on both the state and federal levels – backed up by consistent voters and selfless politicians.