Counterpoint: Jerry Brown Denies Parole to Leslie Van Houten, Charles Manson Follower and Convicted Murder Shows Some Crimes Cannot Be Redeemed and Not Everyone is Eligible for Parole

By:  Robert Bryson

Perhaps one of the biggest misconceptions surrounding California policies is that it is always progressive, it is always a leader, an example for the rest of the country and the world. But, that simply isn’t true. California is as much the founder of voluntary workers’ compensation in the United States as it is the launchpad of Ronald Reagan. California, like the country, is a complex mix of people and ideas.

The denial of parole for Ms. Van Houten is an example of that interplay. On the one hand, it is nice to believe in rehabilitative/restorative justice, on the other hand, some crimes are so heinous that no one can imagine that person ever being redeemed[1], let alone released. A perfect example is Anders Breivik, the notorious Norwegian mass-shooter who killed 77 children attending a summer camp. Breivik was (1) not sentenced to death and (2) received 21 years of incarceration – that comes out to a little more than 3 months per victim. To an American, even a progressive Californian, 3 months per murder victim probably does not sound like enough time.

Norway embraces rehabilitative/restorative justice as a pillar of its justice system. Rehabilitative and restorative justice is really two slightly distinct theories. Rehabilitative justice approaches incarceration as an opportunity to rehabilitate offenders by offering training, education, work programs to encourage offenders to incorporate back into society. Restorative justice involves the offender making “restoration” to the victim and/or the victims family. Classic examples include apologies, paying restitution, and community service.

There is a lot of envy about Norway’s justice system, it is much cheaper and incarcerates far fewer people. However, it is also poorly equipped to deal with the most heinous of society – what do you do with people who cannot be rehabilitated? There are two other overarching theories of criminal justice – retributive and deterrence – that may have the answer.

Under Retributive Justice, criminals are punished “to pay their debt” to the victim and society. The “eye for an eye” adage found in Mathew 5:38-42 is an example of retributive justice. The American system largely adopts this adage. People are punished, serve their time, and are released. If you are a proponent of retribute justice, then you should abhor the thought of punishing someone who is innocent. Under Deterrence Justice, criminals are punished to discourage other criminal behavior. You often hear this cited as support for the death penalty – it discourages other crime. Deterrence justice places the good of society above the good of the individual – punishment isn’t meted out to punish for individual actions but to discourage others from acting. In theory, deterrence justice is served regardless if someone is guilty or innocent – so long as society is kept safe.

Which theory is correct? Should we rehabilitate offenders, should they be punished or is the real purpose of criminal justice to keep society safe? The answer is … yes. While acknowledging the deficit of trying to solve something as big as crime in a single article, criminal justice systems are best if they incorporate all theories. However, as you can probably tell, this all comes down to your opinion. What do you think criminal justice should do? Does it change based on the situation? Maybe a homeless individual should be treated with compassion while a drug kingpin punished harshly?

The problem isn’t that California is too draconian or too progressive, the issue is any justice system that leans too much on any one of these theories. California’s justice system is composed of a unique mix of rehabilitative, restorative, deterrent, and retributive elements. For example, there are specialty courts for certain offenders (e.g. homeless individuals and drug users) that uses treatment rather than punishment. California incorporates restitution to victims, victim-impact statements, community service, traditional incarceration, and, yes, the death penalty and life imprisonment.

Which brings us back to Ms. Van Houten, if she was deemed eligible for parole, why did Governor Brown veto her release? The Charlie Manson murders, without getting into too much detail, changed the country. They were, and still are, among the most notorious and terrifying crime sprees to grip the country in the past century. I’m sure she was manipulated, I’m sure Manson was very charming. However, at some point, we are all responsible for our own actions. She chose to join him on his crime spree, to support him. There is a cost to making such a choice, a cost that may require her to die in prison. I’m sure she is repentant, I’m sure she asks for forgiveness every day, but Manson’s victims don’t get to come back and start over – should she? Unfortunately, this position does mean that not everyone will get out of prison, not everyone will be forgiven. Under the retributive justice theory, her participation in the Manson murders was so heinous that she should never be released. It is sad, but some people cannot be redeemed. For some people, the best they can hope for is forgiveness in death.

[1] For a deeper discussion of “redemption” consider the roll of civil incarceration and sexual offenders. Under civil incarceration, States are able to “sue” convicted offenders (typically repeat-offender pedophiles) to remand them to a psychiatric facility for treatment until they are “cured.” While this process may work for people who suffer from mental illnesses, there is no “cure” for pedophilia. The result is the State permanently imprisoning convicts who are never “cured.”

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