Column: Society’s attempts at justice must be tempered by mercy

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 11, 2003

A couple of weeks ago there was a letter to the editor praising Joe Arpaio, the popular sheriff of Maricopa County, Ariz. He’s earned fame as the sheriff who feeds jail inmates only two meals a day (bologna sandwiches) and houses them in tents &045; in every season, in any weather. He says he’s tough on crime, and it makes him popular. He’s kind of like Arizona’s answer to Jesse Ventura, only without the feather boa.

Unfortunately, the letter writer didn’t bother to tell the rest of the story. Sure, Arpaio is popular; he’s a harsh man serving people who aren’t interested in being nice to people in jail. But he’s also very expensive to keep in his job.

He’s already cost the county well over $1 million, because his brutal methods of incarceration have meant denying inmates access to medical care and other illegal and unconstitutional actions. His deputies have been disciplined for brutalizing those in their custody. Nobody has died &045; yet &045; but enough judges have had problems with his tactics that his popularity on the streets isn’t matched by respect in the courtroom.

Another thing that isn’t always mentioned when people from outside Arizona praise Arpaio and his priorities is the fact that some of the people in his custody have not been convicted of anything. They’ve only been charged with breaking the law. In the eyes of the law, they are innocent until the state proves them guilty. But what does the constitution mean to men like Arpaio? Or to any of us, for that matter? Once you’ve been arrested, you’re guilty, right?

But why bother complaining? Now that those pesky &uot;liberals&uot; are gone, we live in a time when justice is finally being taken seriously. Now all those evil criminals are getting what they deserve: No more television. No more exercising. No more socializing. Make them pay!

Unfortunately, justice by itself is not enough. In our legal system today, mercy is the key concept that’s missing from the picture. It starts right from the top, with President Bush, who, as Governor of Texas, signed more death warrants than any other official in modern American history. Among all the hundreds of people he sent to die, he never found a single reason to be merciful or grant forgiveness.

Our lust for justice continues down through the ranks of the judges in our courtrooms, appointed and confirmed only if they pass the litmus test when it comes to punishing criminals. It includes prosecutors who are more interested in convictions than in the truth. It infects all of us, who too often let our anger govern every interaction with those on the other side of the law.

What exactly does it mean for us as a society, when we are treated to the spectacle of an attorney general shopping around for a courtroom that will provide the easiest route to death for an accused teen-aged sniper? When that young man is then interrogated by several police officers while other officers keep his attorney from entering the room, is that something we should be proud of? Is that kind of &uot;justice&uot; something to celebrate?

The world is filled with terrible hatred right now. Many different people are all crying for justice. But how do more harsh words and brute force solve the problems we face? Unfortunately, that seems to be our only answer, whether we’re talking about terrorists from the Middle East or kids from the suburbs. They’re all the same. If we can’t kill them, lock them up and throw away the key.

It’s shameful that the same society that is so harsh and uncompromising when it comes to wrongdoers is so keen on wearing its Christian faith on its sleeves. Being a Christian hasn’t been so politically popular for years. But when our leaders read their Bibles, do they just skip the parts that talk about God’s commands to be merciful? Are the parts about forgiveness not in their translations of scripture?

I can’t say it any better than Shakespeare, who said that we are most like God, &uot;when mercy seasons our justice.&uot; And there’s a reason why Inspector Javert, from the novel and musical &uot;Les Miserables,&uot; is one of the villains in that story: Justice without mercy leads to tyranny.

David Rask Behling is a rural Albert Lea resident. His column appears Tuesdays.