Sunday, September 04, 2016


Sunday Reflection: Justice and Mercy

As the week closes, I'm reflecting on all that happened. Clemency seems a lot more real when you tell the prisoners they will be freed.

One question I am sometimes asked is whether granting clemency to someone who was over-sentenced is justice or mercy. My answer is that it is both.

Certainly, the sentence (ie, life without parole for a low-level, non-violent narcotics offense) in many of these cases was not just. It was unjust because it was disproportional to what people got for more serious crimes, it was unjust because the length of these sentences did not correlate with any reasonable need for retribution, and they were unjust because justifications rooted in deterrence did not correlate to reality (since you can't deter a market).  So it is fair to say that correcting those unjust sentences is justice.

But, in a way, it is also mercy. That is because these men and women are receiving a break relative to the sentence they were given according to the law in place. Clemency has something else that fits the shape of mercy, too: it is uneven and unpredictable. 

Is it justice? Yes. Is is mercy? Yes. Does it matter which one you call it? Not really, in that moment when freedom becomes a reality, and a prison door opens.

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