“Nobody ‘Deserves’ Any Of This”

An interview with Linda Ross Meyer

In this last interview in a series of three on justice and incarceration in the United States, we leave behind some of the more depressing realities of solitary confinement to speak with Linda Ross Meyer about possibilities for reimagining criminal justice. Meyer wants us to think differently about how we punish, whom we punish, and why we punish. Her book The Justice of Mercy wrestles with the conflict many see between giving people what they deserve for wrongdoing (meting out punishment) and treating offenders fairly (which may require mercy).

Meyer is a professor of law at Quinnipiac University School of Law, in Connecticut. She earned her JD and her PhD at the University of California at Berkeley, clerked for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and taught at Vanderbilt Law School. She teaches torts, criminal law, jurisprudence, theories of punishment, a Supreme Court seminar, and animal law. She also sings in a sextet and writes novels for young adults. She’s a passionate advocate for fair treatment who practices what she preaches, teaching courses in prison to help offenders access the life of the mind and imagine better futures.

—Jill Stauffer

THE BELIEVER: Retribution is the idea that those who commit a crime must be punished as payback for harm they have caused. It’s how most Americans think about criminal law. You’ve argued that replacing our retributive system with a more merciful one would be both more just and more effective. How would that work or why is that so?

LINDA ROSS MEYER: We tend to think of crime in pseudo-monetary terms as a “debt.” Debts, of course, have to be paid, and criminal debts have to be paid in years. However, if, using a different metaphor, we think of crime as a breach of trust between real people, then what seems right to do about it changes. The ideal fix for a breach is a reunification and an attempt to restore trust, not a “payment.” Reunification can come about in many ways, but at some point it requires a willingness of community members to trust and to take risks. The language of mercy reflects the lack of surety and lack of reciprocity inherent in taking that risk.

BLVR: Showing mercy is not the tit for tat of a debt repaid. Perhaps most people are wary of taking that risk with someone who has already broken the law?

LRM: Sure. But do we have to think that way? Mercy, traditionally, has been thought appropriate only in personal relationships. “Just desserts” seem foreign in the context of friendships—you might expect an apology from a friend who runs over your garden, and you might expect her to fix the garden and take you out to dinner. But it’s not appropriate to impose on your friend some painful experience that will be equivalent to the pain you suffered. If you did decide to, say, kill your friend’s favorite plant in order to even the scales, you would have violated the friendship. Indeed, even if you asked a neutral third party to run over an equivalent part of the friend’s garden, it would not do. Instead, the right way to respond to offenses in friendships is to get to work on restoring the garden and the relationship, with a forward-looking spirit of forgiveness that allows for that possibility.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Jill Stauffer is an assistant professor of philosophy and the director of the concentration in peace, justice, and human rights at Haverford College. She is working on a book called Ethical Lonelineless, about the difficulties and possibilities of political reconciliation.

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