Life Sentence at 11 Years Old?

Good’s Cord Jefferson asks: “Should an 11-Year Old Boy Go to Jail for Life?” Read the account. It is horrifying that a boy could do something so evil. My own daughter is 11. I could simply not imagine her doing anything like this. I am sure many of you feel the same. Indeed, the sense that this boy is completely alien to our own experience is one of the reasons it is tempting to support locking him up and throwing away the key. Despite this, however, such a move would do far more harm than good. This is not simply a matter of him being too young to punish. That is perhaps true, perhaps not. Rather, it has to do with the evils inherent with the state monopoly on justice and punishment, and the particular evils introduced when we combine that monopoly with a child offender.

The state, through taxation, separates the consumer of goods, such as roads and schools, from the buyer of those same goods. None of us are customers of a public school in the sense of being able to take our money elsewhere if we get bad service. This causes people to lobby legislators and other public officials and causes a lot of the aggravation that people express when they need the state to do something. But it also, through the criminal justice system, separates the recipients of justice — the victims and families of victims — from the criminals and tortfeasors. This separation has some very significant evil effects of its own.

By establishing a system of prisons, with wardens, guards, and other personnel, who never have any personal reason to punish inmates, the state creates a punishment industry. Note that this is not a “just punishment industry,” but simply a punishment industry. The people involved in the actual day-to-day punishment have no direct connection to the punished. The inmates are just part of the job. The state actually encourages, necessarily, that the prison industry employees dehumanize the inmates. This is true whether the felon is a serial rapist or a drug addict who has never harmed a soul other than himself.  As morally corrosive to the guards and wardens as this is with adult inmates, it is even worse with children.

In addition to the evil effects it has on the jailers, the privatization of such things will naturally lead to the prison industry lobbying for more things to be considered crimes. Consider the example we see in the arts: Copyright holders have pressed for longer and longer copyright terms, moving laws further and further away from the original terms envisioned by the Framers. Such a push for the expansion of the term and scope of offenses punishable by imprisonment is similarly inevitable.

Punishment is not limited in scope to the punished. It affects the punished, the punishers, and those affected by both. Monopolizing it and expanding it, while perhaps giving some comfort to the victims and those outraged by crime, has the additional effect of expanding the state and, eventually, barbarizing those who support it.