Redemption: Susan Atkins and Retributive Justice 'Ideals'

As I was perusing the Internet today, I stumbled across an article from CNN about the status of many of Charles Manson's followers in prison. Reading this article hammered home an idea that I've been pondering about lately--and that's that our notions of retributive justice seem to be greatly askew to what they should. In our society, we so often think of criminals as 'needing to be punished' and 'disgraces to society.' Unfortunately for many, once they disappear behind bars, there is no shot of them coming back, no matter what they do. And that seems wrong to me.

What role does prosecuting, convicting, and imprisoning an inmate really serve? Do we do it to 'punish' the individual? Or do we do it so that we can make our streets safer, and to hope that the inmate will learn from their actions? Certainly, not all inmates convicted of any crime will escape recidivism, and many will never changes, but for those that do, shouldn't there be a second chance extended?

Let's look at one of the 'Manson Family' murderers, Susan Atkins. The article on CNN reports that she is paralyzed in over 85% of her body, cannot be moved to a wheelchair, and has terminal brain cancer. She has expressed remorse and admittance of guilt for her actions, and has gone so far as to say that she recognizes that nothing can make up for her actions. She is described as being a model citizen (and the longest serving female inmate in CA) in prison, and helps others, instead of hurting them. Even her prosecutor which convicted her in the first place thinks she should be released. She has been denied parole 18 times now, and is likely to be denied a 19th time when she comes up for parole again later this year.

It seems to me that this is where we get into issues of what our justice system is supposed to accomplish. We see the idea of 'retributive justice' in the response of one of the family members of her victims:

"The 'Manson Family' murderers are sociopaths, and from that, they can never be rehabilitated. They should all stay right where they are -- in prison -- until they die. There will never be true justice for my sister Sharon and the other victims of the 'Manson Family.' Keeping the murderers in prison is the least we, as a society who values justice, can do."

Apparently, there are some which agree with her. LA prosecutors and even Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger himself seem to be against the idea of granting Susan Atkins parole. They claim that she is a 'danger to society' still. I have no idea what threat a 60-year-old model inmate who is 85 percent paralyzed in her body poses, but at least that's the logic.

Aren't we way too caught up in this idea of 'an eye for an eye'? There is a raging debate about the death penalty because so many believe that if you kill someone, you should be killed to. Taking aside the question about whether or not a governing body of humans can really properly lay out 'punishment' for any criminal, these people argue that there is no chance for redemption for people who commit certain crimes. No matter how their hearts and actions and minds change, nothing will convince these people that they should have another shot. It's all because of a rather devolved idea about our justice system--that we should punish above all else, and that what you get should equal what you did.

I argue for something I view as more civilized, and more congruent with what I think the overall goal of our Justice Department should be. We should have a policy of redemption. We as a people should say that no person is beyond changing themselves and becoming a better citizen, no matter what their crime. Some might call it too naive or too idealistic. I call it fair and honest. If a prisoner has exhibited a change in their lifestyle, and true remorse for their problem, they should be granted parole when they become eligible for it. For some, this may take a matter of weeks in prison. For others, it could take years, but everyone should have the chance to make themselves right again.

As Gandhi said, 'an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.'

Oh, and set Susan Atkins free.

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    Redemption may not be ours (5.00 / 0) (#3)
    by LaraGNG on Sun Apr 05, 2009 at 11:14:15 AM EST
    If the "Manson Family" were black men, no one would be talking about this today. CNN would not have written its piece, and Hoffine would not have had this opportunity to make his point. Because these murderers were cute young white girls (and one guy) at the time of their crimes, and because the crimes were so high-profile, they've popped to the top of topic lists. How many thousands of "model prisoner" black men rot unmourned in our prisons today? Releasing the Manson Family murderers would be no justice to anyone.

    Perhaps retribution is not rightly ours. Maybe redemption should be the goal of a civil society. Still, there are some crimes so heinous and depraved that no amount of service-dog-puppy-training (one of the "Family" does this), no ordination to any ministry (the "Family" member who dealt the final death blows to six people is ordained), no model activity of any kind can redeem them on earth. On the other hand, maybe they have received their redemption already. Another of the group, Leslie Van Houten, is said to be a mentor to younger prisoners in the prison college program. Maybe it is her destiny and her redemption to stay right where she is, mentoring those who may someday be paroled. These three have found their purpose, it seems. They have fulfillment in their lives that Sharon Tate's baby, who would have been 40 this year, never had a chance to know.

    As for Susan Atkins, she is dying a hard death, and that is pitiable. But she is receiving fine end-of-life care at taxpayers' expense. The affecting image of her wasting away from brain cancer does not obscure the images of those she helped murder. We do not need to free her. She will be free soon enough.

    I think you make an excellent point (none / 0) (#1)
    by Bemused on Tue Mar 31, 2009 at 10:18:07 AM EST
      I'd  add, though,  that retribution and redemption need not be mutually exclusive. I believe retribution is not only a value that will never be eliminated from the criminal justice system, but that it should not be eliminated. It should be considered one of the factors entitled weight in balance with all the others. I agree that the possibility  redemption and acknowledgment of atonement should be accorded much more consideration.

    Let's not forget (none / 0) (#2)
    by jbindc on Thu Apr 02, 2009 at 12:53:50 PM EST
    She already got a reprieve once. She was originally sentenced to death for her role in 8 murders.  That death sentence was reduced to life in prison when the death penalty was ruled unconstitutional by the California Supreme Court.

    This woman married twice while in prison and got conjugal visits. She got a heck of a lot more than she should have been entitled to. The families of the victims don't want her released. Sharon Tate's father wrote in a letter for Atkins 2000 parole hearing:

    "Thirty one years ago I sat in a courtroom with a jury and watched with others. I saw a young woman who giggled, snickered and shouted out insults, even while testifying about my daughter's last breath, she laughed. My family was ripped apart. If Susan Atkins is released to rejoin her family, where is the justice?"

    Whatever you think of the death penalty, that was what she was sentenced to for her part in all these horrendous crimes.  Had the California Supreme Court not stepped in, she would have been executed years ago.  She got many more years than she originally thought.

    I know this is a criminal defense site, but I have no mercy for this woman. The victims should definitely have more rights than this worthless pile of human flesh.

    Excellent Points (none / 0) (#4)
    by Quiddity50 on Mon Apr 06, 2009 at 07:47:28 PM EST
    Unfortunately, we are a country moved much more by revenge than redemption, regardless of the so-called religious values of the US.  Forgiveness takes a back seat to "eye for an eye" when revenge is the issue.

    I totally agree with your point of view.  Atkins was in a cult, and there was damn little known about the psychological damage and therapies for cult members in 1969.  Since then, people have drunk the cool-aid, killed themselves to join the space ship, etc., etc.

    The victims' families will never agree with a parole, but it's not up to them.  If our justice system worked that way, there would be a lot of divorced spouses put away for life.  No, the justice system is about, simply, what is right and wrong.  After 40 years an unbiased observer realizes that Susan Atkins was, herself, a victim of the insanity of Charles Manson.  She's had to recover on her own path.  It's time for a parole.

    No (none / 0) (#5)
    by catmandu on Fri May 29, 2009 at 07:35:59 AM EST
    She should stay in prison.  She has not accepted responsibility for her actions, her website book says she did not commit the murders, and she writes of the mass murder as if it were no big deal.  She is truly a disgusting mass murderer.

    I see very little evidence (none / 0) (#7)
    by jondee on Mon Jun 01, 2009 at 06:31:37 PM EST
    in the history of this violent nation that the reflexive detterence mentality, that always knows what everyone "deserves", has dettered much of anything in the last 200 years. Or, are people claiming that we would've been even MORE violent, murderous, vengence seeking (as many murderers are), if we didnt have our detterents?

    Also, I have to wonder what would drive someone to "study" photos like that unless it were to feed either their preexistent outrage or their morbid curiosity. I suspect that most people who come to this site already have a pretty good handle on what heinous means.

    Paul Krassner (none / 0) (#8)
    by jondee on Mon Jun 01, 2009 at 06:49:02 PM EST
    who was on fairly intimate terms with a couple of people closely involved with the initial investigation, has some interesting tidbits of information that, as far as Im aware, Bugliosi, for whatever reasons, chose not to follow up on.

    I recommend reading what Krassner has to say on the Manson case.