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Three cheers for the end of “three knocks”

Last month, the government passed legislation repealing the “three strikes” rule that operated within the country’s criminal justice system.

In short, under the three-strike rule, after committing a third qualifying offense, a person would receive the maximum possible sentence for their crime, without parole. If the second or third offense in question was murder, the court would sentence the perpetrator to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

In both cases, the sentence without parole would be mandatory, unless the court considers that this sentence would be “grossly unjust”.

Without minimizing the enormous injustice and suffering endured by victims of violent crimes, the repeal of the three strikes rule is worth celebrating as a victory for the Christian virtue of hope.

In a 2020 Holy Saturday sermon, Pope Francis explained how Jesus’ resurrection from the dead reveals that all of humanity has been given the “right to hope” by God. By rising from the dead on Easter Sunday, Jesus “plants in our hearts the conviction that God is able to make all things work together for good, for even from the grave he brings life.” This message stems from the pope’s previous remarks in 2014, where he condemned life sentences as incompatible with a belief in the basic human dignity of all people. A life sentence without the possibility of parole, Pope Francis has observed, is “just a death sentence in disguise.” From a Christian point of view, a sentence without parole deprives the individual of the possibility of believing that he could repair what he has done and reintegrate into society; in short, it deprives them of the Easter Sunday message of hope.

There is a remarkable Christian icon (pictured above) by Fransican Robert Lentz called Christ of Maryknoll. The icon shows Christ peering between two layers of barbed wire while reaching through this barrier with his bare fingers. Perhaps what makes this image so powerful is that it deliberately leaves the viewer ambiguous which side of the barbed wire Christ is approaching: is Christ reaching from outside the wire towards the prisoners locked inside, or is Christ perhaps the one behind the wire? The icon can convey either of these situations, but I think it’s best seen as representing both. The figure of the risen Christ – and the message of hope that it implies – must be understood as addressing those who find themselves on both sides of the wire of the prison.

This goes to a larger point about the nature of justice. Justice, from a Christian perspective, should not just be retributive – a matter of someone “paying the price” for what they have done. On the contrary, justice should also seek to transform or restore the condition of the persons concerned. Justice, in this sense, should aim to heal. By requiring that the maximum sentence be meted out to individuals for their crimes without the possibility of parole, the three-strike rule effectively communicated that the convict would remain a wound to society.

The author of Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, once wrote that “[w]When he has lost all hope, all object in life, man often becomes a monster in his misery.” While many systemic issues remain unresolved around crime and punishment in Aotearoa New Zealand, the end of the three strikes regime at least alleviates human misery, by sowing the possibility of greater hope.

Dr. Greg Marcar is a Harold Turner Scholar and Lecturer at the Center for Theology and Public Issues (CTPI) at the University of Otago.