Every lawyer practicing criminal law knows the objectives of sentencing. There are four of them: to punish the wrongdoer, to rehabilitate him/her; to deter the wrongdoer from repeating conduct; and to deter others from engaging in similar conduct.
As most know, Abraham Lincoln was a lawyer. He practiced criminal law. Attorney Lincoln once wrote: “I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.” We all know what mercy is – mercy is compassion or forgiveness toward someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm. We also know what strict justice is. It is often giving a harsh sentence because it is within one’s prerogative to do so.
Ken Scholes is the author of a book called Lamentations. I like what Mr. Scholes says: “Part of me wants justice for this. Part of me wants to never cause harm to another.” When you are the victim of a crime, you want justice – often the full measure of it. This is understandable. But what about mercy? What about a situation where the sentence itself does harm to another and does so unnecessarily?
There are many reasons why people do what they do. Most of the time, actions result from conscious choice. We do what we want to do. When what we purposely do causes great harm to someone else, I can truly understand punishment, rehabilitation and the need to deter. But sometimes – people do things other than through conscious, rational thought. Sometimes people are lost in a fog and they don’t know what they are doing. How are we to treat these transgressors? Are they to be given strict justice too?
One definition of justice is the use of power as appointed by law, honor or standards to support fair treatment and due reward. It seems to me that mercy is part of the concept of justice. In some instances – without mercy – there can be no justice.
I’m like everyone else – there are times when I read the paper and I’m informed of a certain event. The event makes my skin crawl and my initial reaction is that the defendant should get the death penalty – preferably administered slowly. But my life experience teaches me to be patient and when I’m on my game and thinking rationally, I wait. I wait for the evidence to be collected and then I look at it all. Is this a case for mercy or is it a case for strict justice. Or – is it a case for something in between.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle once wrote: “There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.” I think this statement is obviously true.