The recent presidential pardon of former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio raised quite a few eyebrows across the political spectrum. Arizona senator John McCain claimed that the pardon “undermines [the president’s] claim for the respect of the rule of law.” While the charges against Arpaio for refusing to follow a court order to end his racial profiling of Latino people are undoubtedly awful, I am not going to dedicate this article to debating his conviction nor his pardoning. Rather, I wish to briefly discuss the problematic ethics of the criminal justice policy that leads many conservatives to admire him – his toughness on crime and lack of sympathy for criminals.
Arpaio is undeniably an extreme case in criminal justice policy, so I will avoid creating a strawman by claiming that anyone who prefers to be tough on crime wants to go as far as he did. However, the problem lies in that it becomes exceedingly difficult to be tough on crime while respecting human rights and eschewing cruel punishments. Research suggests that harsh punishments may have no benefit other than making those on the outside have a sense of vengeance. In fact, research done by the solicitor general of Canada showed a slight increase in recidivism rates among those with harsher punishments for the same crime.1 The data calls into question the reasoning for the general American support2 for maintaining or increasing the level of harshness in our criminal justice system.
So, why do many Americans feel so strongly about making sure criminals are punished rather than rehabilitated? The answer to that question is complicated, but one explanation could stem from a human desire for order. People tend to feel more comfortable knowing that there is some sort of higher power present to restore balance when things go awry. Whether it be a deity or a government, many find comfort in the idea that the forces of said entity will eventually deliver justice to those who disrupt order. Rehabilitation often fails to satisfy this desire for vengeful justice. Harsh punishments, on the other hand, can create a grand display out of revenge. This is part of the reason it becomes difficult to repeal what some view as the ultimate punishment—the death penalty. The philosophy of “an eye for an eye” is exceptionally attractive to many, and it can become nearly impossible to resist the desire to inflict equal suffering on those who committed a crime.
This leads us to a struggle that can define the moral standing of an entire civilization. A society is far better off if its population can look past its animalistic longing for vengeance to instead embrace the ideas of forgiveness and rehabilitation. Those who commit crimes are often at one of the lowest points in their lives, and around 15-20% of those in prison are mentally ill.3 Can we truly claim to be at a higher moral standing than criminals if we inflict such inhumane suffering on some of the most unfortunate people in our society? In my opinion, no. We absolutely cannot. As a society, we need to take a step back and reevaluate the goal of a criminal justice system. We should resist the will for revenge and instead work towards a humane, rehabilitative system. Our goal should not be to make those who commit crimes live in tents that reach temperatures of 145°F in the sweltering Arizona heat as Joe Arpaio did.4 Nor should our goal be to murder those who commit murder. Rather, our focus in designing an effective criminal justice system should be to reduce recidivism by preparing prisoners for an eventual return as a productive member of society.
Of course, none of these reforms can happen without a movement in our democracy towards candidates who respect human rights and prioritize rehabilitation. We must be wary of candidates like Joe Arpaio who emphasize rigid, unsympathetic enforcement of law and order above all else. Therefore, we cannot sit silently as our systems and leaders practice cruelty towards prisoners, lest our moral standing be diminished as well.
This article was written by Alec Mason. Click here to see more of Alec’s work.