People grow and change over time in response to their circumstances, and those who falter in their efforts or break societal rules deserve a second chance. The ideal of redemption is especially powerful when it comes to children, who have virtually unlimited potential to develop and change with age and experience, and who are, by their nature, less responsible for their circumstances and in their behavior.
Redemption is a value held by virtually all of the world’s religions. It is reflected in our Constitution, which requires proportional treatment of misconduct, and it is embodied in human rights law, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which provides that “the arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time.”
In practice, redemption means providing the conditions that allow people to develop, to rebuild and to take full responsibility for their lives after misfortune or mistakes.
We don’t often enough treat problems of drug addiction and mental illness through public health responses designed to help people conquer those problems. We could better emphasize approaches like job retraining and bankruptcy protection that help people recover after loss or dislocation, and we could treat incarceration as an opportunity-ending event that should be a last resort. Instead, we deny people who have made one mistake their fundamental rights like the right to vote, to housing, and to education.
In practice, redemption means providing the conditions that allow people to develop, to rebuild and to take full responsibility for their lives after misfortune or mistakes. It means using effective rehabilitative approaches that are appropriate and proportionate to a person’s conduct and circumstances. It means recognizing that rehabilitation is an often-rocky road that requires patience and compassion as well as swift and steady intervention.
Together we can utilize redemption as a founding policy principle, particularly within criminal justice. It begins by rejecting the principle of retribution, which is punishment as revenge.