Justice in the news...

Seems as though the criminal justice system has been under more scrutiny than usual the past few weeks.

In response to the Dru Sjodin case, Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty issued a call for the death penalty in Minnesota. Today, Pawlenty announced that he wants to discipline the doctors who allowed Alfonso Rodriguez, Jr., Sjodin's likely murderer, back on the street. In addition, Republicans in the Minnesota House of Representatives want to lock up level 3 sex offenders for good.

It is easy to score political points by acting tough when the public is inflamed by a sensational murder. Pawlenty's a bright guy, but he is acting a little unhinged with these pronouncements. If he was for the death penalty, he should have been pushing for it before the Sjodin case. There have been gruesome murders before, and there will be more in the future--one's views on the death penalty should not be altered by a single case, however infuriating, for there are broader issues at stake.

The decision to seek punishment for the doctors who let Rodriguez go is unwise. If they are human at all, they are mortified by what happened and feel a terrific sense of responsibility. We don't know the pressure they were under. If they kept a person confined after his sentence was complete, would they have to defend themselves in court later? These are people who are carrying out the law to the best of their ability. Don't discipline them. Instead, take the decision out of their hands by passing a law like the House Republicans propose, if that seems appropriate.

In fact, the governor should call those doctors, thank them for performing their most difficult job, and ask they what they would do to rectify the situation whereby Rodriguez was set free. They probably have some good ideas. Punishing them amounts to piling on. Their daily lives are probably quite difficult right now as it is.

Now we come to Lee Malvo, the seventeen year old who was convicted of murder in the Washington D.C. sniper case. I have a problem locking a kid up and throwing away the key. They older guy? Fine. Put him away. But a seventeen year old? There should be some way of giving him a second chance. You know 40 years of jail won't make him less likely to kill again.

Minnesota has tried something called "resortative justice." It is a system whereby the victims of crimes meet the perpetrators (if the victims are willing) and work out an appropriate solution. This has worked well in cases of vandalism and other minor matters. I think it would work particularly well with juveniles, for that is what is missing in their head...a sense for how their actions affect others.

Now, it might be extreme to do this in the case of Malvo. But it is worth imagining. Could there be a more educational form of punishment than to require him to sit down with the families of those he killed? Look through the photo albums? Meet the children? Then, after a few years of meetings--wouldn't the victims' families be the ones to judge whether he should be allowed back into society? Might this not help them work through their feelings of anger? (Pardon the lapse into Therapese.)

It's worth a thought, anyway.