In order to think clearly about criminal justice issues, it is important to separate politics from justice. Both sides of the political divide commingle the two far more frequently than they want to admit. This is evident from recent events.
Last week, OCPA pointed out that the Oklahoma County District Attorney overcharged three people allegedly responsible for mayhem in the aftermath of the protests in Oklahoma City in late May. The individuals responsible for those acts certainly deserve to be prosecuted, but terrorism charges were inappropriate.
The response from some “tough on crime” voices was predictable: No leniency; prosecute those responsible to the fullest extent of the law; and if you don’t want to face harsh charges, don’t commit crimes. Lacking was any sense of proportionality or discretion, not to mention mercy. But there is a difference between justice and vengeance.
Demands for vengeance in the name of justice also come from the political left. In the wake of George Floyd’s death, protesters were outraged that Derek Chauvin was not immediately charged with a crime. On May 29, when third-degree murder charges were brought, there was outrage that the charges were not severe enough. In the aftermath, a popular hashtag on twitter was #RaiseTheDegree. Even when Chauvin’s charges were raised to second-degree murder, there were still protests that first-degree murder was necessary. I saw one person on social media remark that George Floyd didn’t get a fair trial, so why should Chauvin?
The prior examples illustrate a fundamental problem in how our society seeks justice. The mob always seems to think severe criminal penalties are justified for people on “the other team.” This is not justice; it’s vengeance. There’s a reason we don’t let the father of a murdered child sit on the jury of the alleged murderer. Our desire to seek vengeance when a wrong becomes personal almost always clouds our sense of justice. This reality isn’t lessened when the personal stakes are political.
All of us should endeavor to view the criminal justice system through clear eyes. That’s easier said than done because each of us have different life experiences. I don’t expect prosecutors and defense attorneys to view the system the same, and I don’t expect conservatives and progressives to, either. Still, tribalism has no place in the criminal justice system when our fellow citizens’ lives and liberty are at stake. There is a reason why statues of justice show her blindfolded. When we allow tribalism to creep in, it’s often not justice we’re seeking, but vengeance.