Some provoking comments from http://sentencing.typepad.com/sentencing_law_and_policy/:
What do "our ideals" say about mass incarceration or LWOP for juves or acquitted conduct or the death penalty or GPS tracking or lots of other distinctive aspects of the modern American criminal justice system? I ask this question because I keep thinking about these two sections of President Obama's Inaugural Address:
On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics. We remain a young nation. But in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness....
As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils that we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man -- a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience sake.
I strongly believe that the most disturbing aspects of modern criminal justice systems reflect choices by many in government to choose fear over hope and to readily give up "our ideals" concerning freedom and liberty because doing so seems expedient in light of "false promises" and "worn-out dogmas" of purported perils that threaten "our safety."
Ironically, some of our ideals concerning freedom and liberty still light the world even though they have been given up at home. No other country in the world incarcerates nearly as many people as does the US, and many nations in Western Europe take pride in their low imprisonment rates. Many countries reject as inhumane the punishment of life without parole for any offender, while the US continues to condemn even juvenile offenders to never having a chance to live outside a cage. Sadly, I could go on and on, but let me here just encourage readers to add more examples of criminal justice choices that seem to sacrifice our ideals in the name of safety.
Valuably, we have already seen President Obama's commitment to give meaning to his words through his executive orders that, as described in this article, will "close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp within a year, permanently shut the CIA's network of secret overseas prisons and end the agency's use of interrogation techniques that critics describe as torture." But, now that the President and his Administration have showcased a commitment to our ideals in the face of foreign threats, I hope he will turn at least some attention toward what our ideals and "our better history" means for domestic crime and punishment.
As I have suggested before, President Obama could give effect and impact to his inspiring words about "out ideals" through a few clemency grants or an executive order calling for a review of the massive increase in the size and costs of the federal criminal caseload (which, as discussed here, was recently documented by the US Sentencing Commission). A little action to back up his rhetoric on the home front would go a long way toward giving me hope that false promises, worn-out dogmas and fear are among the childish things that the new President is truly prepared to put away.