Is Charles Manson Still Relevant?

Posted on April 17, 2012 by


After so many years, what relevance is there in the Charles Manson case? I can think of two ways in which his case continues to play a role in the criminal justice system.

  • Manson reminds us that our criminal justice system must be designed to handle the very worst crimes that human beings can imagine. Manson wanted more than murder, he wanted to start an entire race war. And he was as malevolent and cunning as he was charismatic. While we must also be careful to create a humane criminal justice system that does not mete out unjust or cruel and unusual punishments, we must also be prepared for what you might call the statistical outliers. The worst of the worst. The Charles Mansons of the world.
  • The parole process plays a critical role in justice by serving as the formal system by which we revisit most cases and prisoners at regular intervals. For Manson, it seems crystal clear that he is guilty as sin and a continued threat to society. For other prisoners, as time passes, we may realize that our initial judgments (sentences) were misguided. Or, time and therapeutic programs may accomplish the rehabilitative goal of the correctional system and we may want to  begin the process of releasing the inmate back into the community.

However, there are also dangers in giving the Manson case too much air time in the public and professional discourse about crime.

Image: Amazon

  • Most offenders are not Manson. If Manson is allowed to stand in as a symbolic representation of all criminals, we will be too frightened (and in turn, too harsh) as a society to design and implement appropriate criminal justice system policies.
  • The killer as celebrity encourages a culture which glorifies violence. While Son of Sam laws have helped to deal with offenders who attempt to profit from their crimes, these laws don’t address the fundamental consumer demand that drives the murderabilia and related industries. Watching Dexter may give the viewer a frisson of pleasure in rooting for the anti-hero, but celebrating killers in real life has ugly consequences for society as a whole.

With all that in mind, what do you think? Is Manson still relevant?