American justice

Though it is Dalrymple’s experiences of and opinions on the criminal justice system for which he has primarily become known in the United States, his views on such matters are more complex than are widely known. He is equally concerned with the necessity of punishment and the cruelty of over-punishment, the need for compassion toward victims but also toward perpetrators, and the injustice of both over-lenience and also of wrongful convictions (even sometimes of the guilty). He is appalled by the American system’s use of plea bargaining and parole.

Although this complexity is expressed in his latest New Criterion piece, he has nothing but disdain for its primary subject, Conversations with the Dead, a 1968 book of photos of Texas prisoners:

As the new postscript to the book makes clear, the author was not so much concerned to expose individual abuses as to deny the ethical justification for imprisonment and perhaps of all punishment of criminal behavior:

You cannot have prisons without guards. And for every day you take from these people [he means prisoners, not guards, though the grammar suggests otherwise], you take something from yourself. For every pleasure you deny them, you deny another to yourself. For every severe sentence you steel yourself to hand out, you diminish something inside yourself. . . . Be neither a slave nor a master. Be free.

This is pure Berkeley, circa 1966. It astonishes me that a man can write such high-sounding but flatulent and self-congratulatory drivel having lived almost half a century more. To remain true to the ideals of one’s adolescence is laudable or stupid according to what they were and are. I am afraid Mr. Lyon is a Bourbon of Berkeley: he has learned nothing and forgotten nothing.

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