The following was written by Mark S. Rubin, St. Louis County Attorney. It was originally published in the Archangel's Trumpet, a newsletter of the St. Louis County Chaplain's Association.
Over 20 years ago, after prosecuting a First Degree Murder case in Duluth, I ran into one of the jurors. We talked a little bit about her experience. She comment-ed about the quote I used in my final argument, words from Robert Louis Stevenson, "Sooner or later everyone is invited to their own banquet of consequences." She told me she found these words to be very meaningful and helpful for the jury, but she suggested also that I should con-sider the phrase: "Mercy is easy, justice is the challenge."
In this spirit, I offer the following reflection for you.
As the St. Louis County Attorney, I am the Chief Prosecutor, or what's known as the District Attorney in other jurisdictions. One of my sworn responsibilities is to protect and preserve the constitution by working to assure the safety of our fellow citizens through the fair and just prosecution of those who break our laws. To do this work, I have 14 assistants in our Criminal Division. This is often a very daunting task.
We are called upon to perform this task while at the same time working diligently to assure that the rights of the accused are always scrupulously honored. When there is a finding of guilty, either through a plea or a trial by court or jury, our role is to offer our best recommendation to the court for the most appropriate sentence.
There is a delicate balance between justice and mercy. As a criminal justice system, we are in danger of compromising our unique and necessary role in democracy. We are doing so with good intentions, but we need to step back to see what is happening.
Offenders are prosecuted for committing crimes where individuals are often the victims. The complaint is sworn out by a police officer and it is alleged that the offense violated the peace and dignity of all of the State. We have bargained away self-help/retaliation/revenge in return for an implied agreement that "we" will extract fairness, mercy and justice on behalf of all while taking into consideration the particular plight of the individual victim. The surging epidemic of the abuse and sale of opioids in our community is pre-senting a particular challenge to our work.
I should make a couple of points clear. First, I am compassionate towards our fellow citizens who suffer from addictions through substances, both legal and illegal. A part of all of their lives are compromised/robbed by the thief of addiction. As County Attorney, I am part of, and support our efforts as a society to help these individuals address the problems through support and funding of drug court, other specialty courts, and treatment programs.
While it is our moral imperative to offer aid and support to those suffering from substance abuse and addictions, it may not be in our best interest to move too far toward excusing the anti-social criminal conduct engaged by those abusing/under the influence of, or motivated by the quest to seek a legal or illegal drug. This applies not only to the opioids referred to above, but alcohol.
Our fragile criminal justice system is in danger of straining to the point of breaking while trying to be the answer to all of our growing social issues and challenges. We have evolved to a place where not only is the particular situation/input of a cases and at sentencing, but so is the situation of the convicted criminal. Here is where the rubber meets the road. We are facing the challenge and issue that our motivation to be "society's fixer" may run the risk of doing more harm than good. Here is where we need vigilance and con-tinued dialogue with spirited discussions.
As I referred to above in this article, we have traded away revenge/retaliation in return for our criminal justice system fash-ioning an appropriate response when someone commits a crime, especially when someone is a victim of a violent crime. We need to understand that we are imposing a sentence that is the consequence for the illegal conduct, not because of who that individual might be. That is where the challenge of equal pro-tection under the law, and equal application of the laws, needs to come into true focus. To our credit as a criminal justice system, we take into consideration behavioral components to address rehabilitative needs while individuals might be on pro-bation, parole, or locked up in jail or pris-on. We recognize this as a moral responsibility.
Justice and mercy. We need both components. One without the other is ineffective and runs dangerously close to compromising our sworn constitutional responsibilities. Is this a challenge? Obviously without a doubt, yes. Insurmountable? Absolutely not. However, especially in this horribly fractured and divided society in which we live, we need to be willing to discuss issues such as this in an open, candid, and respectful manner. This is how we give life to democracy. This is how we honor those who have come before us.