How often do you get to hear from a now-reformed, formerly convicted bank robber turned lawyer, challenging you to think critically about the American criminal justice system?
On September 15, we had just that privilege when Regent Law alumnus, Jesse Wiese, spoke to law students and faculty over lunch.
Jesse challenged us, as believers in Christ, to consider what the ultimate goal of the criminal justice system should be. Should the goals be oriented toward deterring future crime, reforming offenders, or paying what is justly deserved for the crime that is committed?
Jesse argues that the system should be oriented around the ultimate goal of retributive justice (punishment), with restoration (or rehabilitation) as a value of the criminal justice system. In a world where decisions are made for political and financial reasons, our system often loses sight of the most important question, “What is just?” What is it that justice requires of the one who has committed a crime? A true retributive model is the only one that considers this question. Ultimately, the thing that most respects the human dignity of the one who has committed a crime is to allow him or her to pay the punishment that is justly deserved for those actions.
But Jesse challenged us further. While the goal of the criminal justice system should be retribution, the punishment must be proportionate. And Jesse persuasively argued that punishments for most crimes in the United States are far from proportionate. Indeed, not only does the U.S. criminalize conduct that should not be criminalized, it “punishes” felons after they serve their sentence through the never-ending loss of rights that felons face once they are released from prison. For example, Jesse shared a story of how a prisoner learned to cut hair while serving his sentence. When he was released and applied for a license to open a barber shop, he was denied, because he was a felon.
Hearing from Jesse was especially powerful, considering his own story. He was convicted of robbing a bank and subsequently served seven and a half years in prison. Through Prison Fellowship, Jesse began walking with the Lord. His first-hand experiences with the criminal justice system led him to pursue law school and to the position he is in today, as a policy analyst with Justice Fellowship.
Jesse’s insight is invaluable, and his life is a powerful reminder that the Lord transforms us in order that we may serve others and bring glory to Him.
“Our criminal justice system is filled, both deep and wide, with the complexities of justice and equity. There is no better arena that showcases the highs-and-lows of human nature than in these trenches of depravity, dignity, and hope. We must never forget that our criminal justice system is, first, ours—a foundation grounded in Christian thought and rhetoric—and, second, though it is a system, it is about people—millions of people who bear the image of our Creator. As Christians, we must convey the biblical concepts of punishment, proportionality, and finality. As a society, we must begin to apply serious scrutiny to the processes the restrict ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ There is work to be done and people to be freed.” -Jesse Wiese
Click here to read Jesse’s testimony before the Overcriminalization Task Force.
by Center student staff member and Graduate Assistant Pamela Dodge