Tipsy has a really good blog post up over at his site entitled “Inscrutable Justice.” Go read it. It considers our inappropriate tendencies toward private vengeance in the administration of our public criminal justice system and some further thoughts on whether these tendencies are modeled after certain views about how God administers justice. I love the description of the Calvinist view of the Almighty as sort of a thin-skinned medieval lord who is infinitely offended and of John Edward’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” as a near-slander of God.
More to the point, however, indulging our natural, individual thirst for vengeance is digression from the public goals of the criminal justice system. Maybe a toxic digression. This came up for me in a discussion over at Kole Hard Facts of Life about the seemingly very light sentence of Anders Breivik in Norway. He was sentenced to 21 years for killing 77 people.
Admittedly, the severity of the punishment is not comparable to the severity of the crime. But, then, really nothing the State could do to Breivik could match his crime. However, it’s not the goal of the State to inflict as much pain on the criminal as the criminal inflicted on the victims. Rather, the goals are to keep the public safe, deter future crime, and – in service of those two goals – rehabilitate the criminal, if possible. Now, I know that the desire for vengeance is a motivating emotion in some who create and administer the criminal law as well as many of the citizens who support the criminal law. But, vengeance is an individual feeling; not a desirable attribute of the State.
So, while I would shed no tears if Breivik suffered a freak accident that caused him to die a painful death; I can’t fault Norway for not codifying vengeance. As I understand it, after the 21 years is up, if a determination is made that Breivik is still a threat to public safety, there are mechanisms in place for extending that sentence. I can’t look at Norway and then at the United States; their relative crime rates; and their relative costs of administering criminal justice and conclude that we know better than Norway how to do these things – even if their public system doesn’t happen to scratch my personal itch for retribution.