First Principles

The Punishing Agenda of the Anti-Punishment Movement

Punishment is a public declaration of moral standards. It is an extension of natural law. Descend into the anti-incarceration activists’ amoral abyss, and you abolish the very fabric of our ethical tradition.

On November 29, 2019, a man now called the London Bridge terrorist slaughtered British student Jack Merritt. While the killer has been named for a famous London landmark; his victim has been all but forgotten.

The killer’s family was quick to condemn the London Bridge terrorist’s actions. The family of his victim—not so much.

David Merritt, the late lad’s dad, got busy condemning those who wish to condemn that killer and his ilk to life in a cell. By December 2, Merritt the elder was already penning op-eds about clemency and leniency for criminals like the man who murdered his son.

Such minute-made forgiveness would have been Jack’s wish, asserted Merritt rather presumptuously—for how can the living speak for the dead?

David Merritt, then, proceeded to minimize what was murder with malice aforethought by dismissing what his son’s killer did as a mere “tragic incident.”

Just how obscene is the progressive mindset can be gleaned from what Mr. Merritt wrote:

If Jack could comment on his death—and the tragic incident on Friday 29 November—he would be livid. We would see him ticking it over in his mind before a word was uttered between us. Jack would understand the political timing with visceral clarity.

He would be seething at his death, and his life, being used to perpetuate an agenda of hate that he gave his everything fighting against . . . What Jack would want from this is for all of us to walk through the door he has booted down, in his black Doc Martens.

That door opens up a world where we do not lock up and throw away the key. Where we do not give indeterminate sentences … Where we do not slash prison budgets, and where we focus on rehabilitation not revenge. [Emphasis added.]

Anti-punishment ideologues like Merritt, incorrectly and condescendingly conflate punishment with “hate” and vengeance, and restitution and “rehabilitation” with justice.

They typically treat us to facile flimflam such as that “the desire for vengeance cannot become the foundation of jurisprudence.” By this verbal manipulation, these ideologues disingenuously advance a definition of justice that precludes incarceration and instead equates that object with restitution and rehabilitation alone.

Compared to David Merritt’s woke sentiments, the family of the London Bridge terrorist was mundane in its proper and civilized expiation.

“We are saddened and shocked by what [the killer] has done,” said the family. “We totally condemn his actions and we wish to express our condolences to the families of the victims that have died and wish a speedy recovery to all of the injured.”

But there was apparently no need to apologize. Speaking for his dead son, David Merritt appears already to have made peace with Jack’s ripper.

In their extreme versions, anti-punishment ideologues like David Merritt often plump for complete penal abolition.

Driven by parental and pedagogic progressivism, Jack, of blessed memory, had “devoted his energy to the purpose of a “pioneering program” called “Learning Together,” which aims “to bring students from university and prisons together to share their unique perspectives on justice.”

The imperative to offer up young lives to this or the other manifestation of Moloch is a progressive impulse—an obscene one, at that.

If young Merritt’s murder proves anything it is that Cambridge University’s social-justice outreach, “Learning Together,” is a costly indulgence, as Jack was murdered on the job.

More generally, the movement for restorative justice holds that problems plaguing the criminal justice system are reason enough to abolish it. Oddly, the movement’s position is starkly utilitarian, and bereft of principle.

Incarceration, assert proponents of “no-fault” forgiveness, doesn’t reduce rates of re-offense and doesn’t bring back the dead. Ergo, abolish it we must and heal the criminal in the community. After all, responsibility for individual evil actions lies really with “society.” Justice, say the activists, is therefore best sought by a redistribution of wealth and resources.

But, contrary to such pinko propaganda, our prisons aren’t loaded with choir boys.

The London Bridge killer was no victim of the system (although he claimed to have been fat-shamed or bullied for nurturing a prison paunch. Boo hoo). Rather, it was Jack Merritt who was the victim of a system that had automatically released a man with murder on his mind on a kind of meritless-reprieve scheme, and despite the man’s vow to do violence.

When just a teen, this killer plotted to attack the London Stock Exchange. He then fooled those around him by feigning remorse and a desire to reintegrate into British society.

From the dizzying heights of Platonic theorizing, libertarian anti-incarceration theorists typically point out, quite correctly, that crimes are committed against individuals and not against the amorphous entity called “society.” Solutions, they say, should, therefore, focus on making criminals pay restitution to their victims.

Here on terra firma, however, the prosaic fact is that when more dangerous offenders are incarcerated, fewer innocent individuals suffer.

When fewer violent criminals are apprehended, more innocent individuals are harmed.

If innocent individuals are incarcerated—a horrible thing against which jurist William Blackstone railed in 1769, saying “the law holds that it is better that ten guilty persons escape, than that one innocent suffer”—they are harmed.

Although I would not argue against compelling criminals to do penance shaped by their victims, some libertarian anarchists want to see punishment replaced by a system of financial restitution.

But in cases (and there are many) where criminals can’t remotely repay victims for the harm done (especially in violent crimes), this means the consequences to the criminal won’t be remotely proportionate. In effect, by rejecting proportionate punishment for what is usually disproportionately paltry “restitution,” libertarian abolitionists are endorsing systematic injustice.

The object of so-called libertarians should not be a simplistic move to reduce the involvement of the state at any cost, not if it means freeing guilty offenders. Rather, it should be to reduce prison population by freeing innocent people whose activities, lawful by natural-law standards, the state has criminalized. Whether punishment makes people feel good, whether it reforms the criminal or safeguards the public is immaterial, although I would argue that a society with a moral code is safer in the long run than one without it.

Punishment is a public declaration of moral standards. It is an extension of natural law. Descend into the anti-incarceration activist’s amoral abyss, and you abolish the very fabric of our ethical tradition.

Fortunately, David Merritt’s meritless advocacy for a man who swore to murder again is moot. That killer was dispatched at the scene of his crime, his descent into hell hastened by the city of London’s police force.