I read in the Sunday Post Standard about the jailing of Christopher Wells in Florida for murder. Nineteen years before, he and his wife had been accused, convicted, and spent less than a year each in prison for aggravated child abuse. Christopher had shaken their daughter, Christina, and nearly killed her. Now nineteen years later, Christina, in the care of an adoptive Mom, a “guardian angel sent by God” as Christopher called her, had died. The medical experts were unanimous that the death resulted from the long term effects of the traumatic injuries.
According to the paper, the defense brought up issues of double jeopardy. They pointed out that Christopher and his wife had mended their lives, had several more children, and had not been in trouble since. The couple had even asked to visit Christina after she was eighteen and had done so. But raw retributive justice would not be denied and Christopher received 15 years.
The case brought into bold relief an issue that I have felt strongly about for some time. What should be the aim of the whole justice system? Certainly penal retribution is a large part of the answer. But it is definitely not all of it. Another widely recognized piece of the answer has to do with the protection of society. We see this idea coming into play in the treatment of repeat felons, in cases of crimes committed by someone with mental illness, and in the publicizing of info on sex offenders. That is not at issue in this case.
I submit that there is a third piece that judges and law should have in mind always. It seems to be completely missing in most of our judicial practice. And it is cases like that of Christopher Wells that bring the lack of the inclusion of this principle to light. Judges and law guidelines , especially in the sentencing phase, should have as a primary consideration; what is restorative? What is remedial? What can bring healing to this situation, this person, this family? In some cases, that is not possible or doesn’t alter things. But in others it changes the picture drastically. Certainly penal incarceration, forced interruption of a destructive life course is frequently part of the answer from the perspective of remediation too. But the rates of recidivism tell us of the abject failure of incarceration alone as a means of changing lives.
In the Wells case, the healing has obviously happened. Society has nothing to gain by incarcerating him again even though a penalty may be technically due. We only sow poverty and destruction into a family that has already found rehabilitation. We likely endanger the remaining children too. In short, society, Christopher and his family will all lose by enforcing penal retributive justice. Why cannot the judge be allowed to be truly wise, rather than follow the letter? Why cannot the judge rule that the higher aims of law have already been served and give a greatly altered and reduced sentence because of it? That would be true justice!