The Power of Public Opinion
After church, recently, I was asked what I thought of the Supreme Court (Canada) ruling that overturned the tough-on-crime policy set by our current government regarding sentence calculation which takes into account and gives credit for incarceration spent in pre-trial centres. The credit had been taken away by recent legislation, but this ruling was now overturned and credit has been restored. The headline in the Vancouver Sun was encouraging to me, for once. (Mike Blanchfield, the Vancouver Sun, April 12, B 1). It read,” Supreme Court gets tough on tough-on-crime agenda.” I thought the ruling, “a confirmation of common grace at work in our court system,” I said. The person asking was taken aback by my optimistic theological perspective. He referred to his longstanding fear of being victimized, a fear that had actually kept him from getting involved in the local M2W2 program to visit prisoners. “People commit a crime nowadays”, he said, “and then get out right away with no punishment”, He quickly referred to the Surrey Six, a gang land slaying in surrey, before the courts currently; a truly horrendous gang related crime, but not really representative of those in prison. In his opinion prisons need to be tougher, and he supports the tough on crime agenda with its truth in sentencing emphasis. I recognize that this person does not have the whole picture, and that his knowledge is largely 3rd hand from the media and has done scant theological reflection on this topic. He does not understand the difference between a pre-trial centre and a penitentiary; as well he believes that retributive punishment will create a safer society. With such strong suppositions, I had a hard time finding a receptive hearing.
Having spent many years in prisons as chaplain has infused in me a sensitivity to the content and tone of media reports and the general negative, fear-based, comments I hear around me in society. As I write this, the tragedy in Calgary, of Matthew de Grood allegedly stabbing to death five of his fellow university graduates is of high profile in the news; my heart goes out to all the families and friends of the victims; there are just no words to express the collective harm and pain. I carry in my heart also the horrendous life situation of young Matthew, his family, and his friends. I ponder, “What’s to be done?” He will likely spend lots of time in a remand centre; and, should he be found guilty, what kind of sentence calculation will address all the grief and loss of all those families affected, as well as the sensibilities of society at large? What kind of sentence calculation will satisfy God? What will make the community safer? This week I see again in the media, news items describing fear based appeals for specific prisoners not to be released on parole. Public opinion, potentially amplified now in our wireless era can have influential power, but like all powers in society, it can be abused and misdirected. I am thinking more in terms of social-cultural powers (systems theory), not simply that of individuals; I am thinking of bewildering powers such as those of for example, a racist culture, a gun culture, a culture of violence, or a culture in which winning is everything, to name some.
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