In October 2015, Senator MIke Lee gave what I believe to be one of the single most important public policy addresses of our generation entitled The Conservative Case For Criminal Justice Reform. In his address to the heritage foundation, Senator Lee lays out a conservative and moral basis for supporting efforts to reform our criminal justice system and focus on the rehabilitation of criminals. This is an excerpt of my favorite part, but implore you to read his powerful address in full:
“If there is one thought I can leave with you today, it’s this: criminal justice reform doesn’t call on conservatives to compromise our principles, but to fight for them. It’s about making our communities—the little platoons of service and cooperation at the heart of our republic—safe and prosperous and happy.
It’s about basing our laws, our court procedures, and our prison systems on a clear-eyed understanding of human nature—of man’s predilection toward sin and his capacity for redemption—along with an uncompromising commitment to human dignity.
Respect for the equal dignity of all human life, no matter how small or weak, and for the redemptive capacity of all sinners, no matter how calloused, is the foundation for everything that conservatives stand for. Our approach to policing and punishment should be no different. So, as I see it, criminal justice reform properly understood represents principled conservatism at its best.” (Emphasis added)
In this post, I hope to expand somewhat on Senator Lee’s vision, and lay out a moral and spiritual case for criminal justice reform from an LDS perspective.
At its core, as Senator Lee notes, criminal justice reform is predicated on the foundational belief mankind has equal dignity, and that while we have a predilection towards sin, we also have the capacity for redemption. In other words, it is based in our faith that the Atonement of Jesus Christ is real and can transform even the most reprobate and wicked of sinners.
It is well-known that Senator Lee is a member of the LDS Church. And it isn’t surprising to see a member of the LDS Church advocating for criminal justice reform. After all, Joseph Smith in his brief and ill-fated run for President took a strong stance on the need to reform prisons and to focus on rehabilitation rather than mere putative punishment.
Indeed, Joseph Smith linked the inhumanity of the prison system to the evils he saw in institutionalized slavery. He noted that the ideals of the Declaration of Independence went unfulfilled because “some two or three millions of people are held as slaves for life, because the spirit in them is covered with a darker skin than ours; and hundreds of our kindred for an infraction, or supposed infraction, of some over wise statute, have to be incarcerated in dungeon glooms, or suffer the more moral penitentiary gravitation of mercy in a nut-shell.”
And Joseph Smith’s proposal for our prison system is startling and radical:
“Petition your state legislatures to pardon every convict in their several penitentiaries, blessing them as they go, and saying to them, in the name of the Lord, go thy way and sin no more.Advise your legislators when they make laws for larceny, burglary or any felony, to make the penalty applicable to work upon roads, public works, or any place where the culprit can be taught more wisdom and more virtue; and become more enlightened. Rigor and seclusion will never do as much to reform the propensities of man, as reason and friendship. Murder only can claim confinement or death. Let the penitentiaries be turned into seminaries of learning, where intelligence, like the angels of heaven, would banish such fragments of barbarism. Imprisonment for debt is a meaner practice than the savage tolerates with all his ferocity. ‘Amor vincit amnia.” Love conquers all.’” (emphasis added)
Today, rather than “seminaries of learning,” our prisons are breeding grounds for filth and vice. Such prisons utterly fail to “reform the propensities of man.” Instead, the basest tendencies are affirmed and strengthened. This should not be. When we place individuals in prison and continually label them or treat them as depraved and irredeemable, we mock the power of Christ’s atonement and we do a grave disservice to those who are put in prison.
But perhaps even worse is how we treat convicts once they are let out of prison. Today, a conviction is a scarlet letter that bars individuals from employment, housing, and opportunity. Thus, those who most need to be rehabilitated into society are locked out of the very things they need to get a fresh start. Is it any wonder that so many relapse and fall back into a life of crime? We fall short of the Prophet’s injunction to “bless them as they go, and say to them, in the name of the Lord, go thy way and sin no more.’
If all ex-convicts were murders or rapists, it would be more understandable, although still deeply problematic, that felons would be shunned. But the multiplication of statutes and laws means that individuals are frequently punished for infractions that are seemingly minor. (For instance, last year the Supreme Court in a narrow 5-4 decision overturned the conviction of an individual who had been convicted, under a statute intended to prevent corporations from shredding documents, when he threw a fish overboard during a government investigation) And as Senator Lee notes in his address, punishment may often come without a culpable intent or mens rea. We have turned the law into a snare for the unwary, with utterly tragic consequences.
All the while, innocent individuals are coerced by the power of the state to take plea bargains even if they did not do the crime, even as their assets are frozen so that they cannot hire quality counsel. Taking guilty individuals and putting them in our prison system is problematic, but doing so to an innocent person is morally unconscionable. And to top it off, we have taken away discretion from judges to weigh aggravating and mitigating factors and provide a fair and just sentence. In order to appear tough on crime, we have chosen justice over mercy and ignore the individual humanity of those who have committed crimes. (And there are so many other problems with our system that I have no
There should of course be punishment. Wrongful acts require consequences. And mercy cannot mock the demands of Justice. Full restitution is essential for true repentance. But we should also remember the powerful promise of the Lord that offers all who repent: “Behold, he who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more.” (D&C 58:42).
We do not have God’s perspective or his infinite knowledge. We cannot see into the hearts and minds of those arrested of crimes. We cannot truly know if they will again fall back into crime. And we must protect innocent individuals from harm. Yet, our criminal justice system should be reoriented towards the vision of Joseph Smith and towards the rehabilitation of criminals.
In prison, individuals can be taught values that they were not taught due to poverty or ill circumstance. They can be taught to appreciate hard work, to learn teamwork and cooperation, to develop the skills needed for citizenship. And this transformation can also There have been powerful stories featured in the Ensign of hearts softened and lives transformed even while in the depths of prison. Not all individuals will take advantage of these opportunities. Certainly, they maintain their agency. But we can do a much better job as a society of providing the opportunity to these individuals. And instead of shunning those who come out of prison, we can extend a hand of fellowship and help to support them as they transition back into society.
As Senator Lee memorably declared, “the pursuit of happiness depends on the opportunity to earn second chances.” This opportunity to earn second (or third or fourth etc.) chances is at the core of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and at the core of the values of the United States. Ours is a land of great opportunity and promise, where individuals are encouraged to risk, create, and when necessary start again. Our liberal bankruptcy policies offer the opportunity to wipe away past debt and to once again be able to strive for happiness. Shouldn’t our criminal justice system also reflect this vision?
I believe that criminal justice reform is truly a bipartisan issue and one that should unite all people of faith. But we as Mormons have a unique eternal perspective which should give us an even greater commitment to this cause. We know that our fellow brothers and sisters once chose to follow God and to choose the right path in the pre-mortal existence. And we know that those who are now fallen can nevertheless rise towards eternal exaltation. We also believe that the light of Christ touch all people throughout the world and inspire them to do right. With all of these reasons to see the good in others and to believe in their potential for redemption, we should be first to urge reform of our broken and morally unjust criminal justice system.