Criminal Justice in a Free Society

Mackinac Center announces criminal justice initiative

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy is often labeled a “free market think tank,” which is correct but incomplete. The Center describes its purpose in part as, “broadening the debate on issues that has for many years been dominated by the belief that government intervention should be the standard solution.” In light of this, we’ve decided to extend that debate to include the issue of criminal justice reform.

Although it has not been a major focus, Mackinac Center analysts have studied and written on issues in this area for many years. We published our first civil asset forfeiture study nearly 20 years ago, and one of our first projects was a study on jail overcrowding. Our more recent work in this area includes papers on overcriminalization, criminal intent and civil asset forfeiture.

Today Mackinac is part of a growing network of organizations around the country that feel compelled to focus more effort on topics like overcriminalization, incarceration and the rule of law. Before addressing the specifics, it is worth pausing to consider what criminal justice should mean in a free society.

A society’s understanding of justice is most concretely expressed in the form of laws — particularly laws that identify actions the society considers wrong. We choose consequences for deliberate wrongdoing, and then empower government to enforce them. Civil society requires this arrangement for three reasons.

First, just (and justified) punishment prevents the chaos of retaliation and vigilantism, and helps victims heal. Second, offenders retain their human dignity by being punished humanely and rehabilitated effectively. Finally, punishing criminal activity helps deter future crime, allowing people and businesses to flourish in a safe environment and encouraging investment, innovation and trade. It’s hard to imagine a functioning society without these elements.

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So a criminal justice system is necessary, but ours has become increasingly complex. Making the system work requires resources from all three branches of government, at every government level, consuming a significant portion of tax dollars. From the passage of laws to their enforcement on the streets and in the courts, to the custody of offenders in jails, prisons, treatment centers and transitional housing and their continued supervision after release — upholding and implementing the rule of law is a huge task.

And we are all invested in the outcome, whether as taxpayers, as individuals impacted by crime at a personal level, or simply as citizens seeking to live the good life in a prosperous society. That is why it is so important that our criminal justice system works the way that it should.

Reforming criminal justice policy is about examining the way we do things now and identifying opportunities to do better, whether that’s in reducing crime, supporting victims or ensuring taxpayer dollars are used efficiently and effectively. The United States is already much better at enforcing laws and respecting civil rights than most other nations, but there’s still considerable room for improvement.

This applies even more in Michigan, a state that enacts more laws, spends more money, and imprisons more people than most others. The Mackinac Center’s goal is to help identify how to most effectively administer justice and to determine what works and what does not, so that we may all work together to produce a safer, freer and more prosperous Michigan. We look forward to partnering with you on this new initiative.


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