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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1171

The Injustices of the Criminal Justice System

One of Moonrise’s most prominent arguments relates to the fundamental injustices perpetrated by the criminal justice system in the US. The novel’s point of view, in belonging to Joe (who is first a child and then a teenager), serves to highlight the unfairness of the system even more sharply. Crosson makes powerful points here: sometimes children perceive biases far more keenly than adults, and conversely, it is ironic that adults are blind to realities which even children can discern.

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Through Ed’s case, it is clear that the justice system operates on biases and misguided agendas even before a crime is committed. The end point of delivering justice is not reparation but the collection of arrest data. Therefore, though little forensic evidence connects Ed to Pheelan’s murder, police are quick to label him as the chief suspect in the case. Ed is also pressured to sign a confession without a lawyer or a parent present, which seals his fate. The fact that the murder victim is a white police officer with a family hastens the drive to find a culprit. In this hastiness, procedures are rushed—as in the case of Ed, whom a jury sentences to death within an hour of his trial.

Crossan also highlights the relationship between the severity of a prison sentence and the suspect’s class and race, as well as the state in which the crime is committed. Joe cannot wrap his head around the fact that, had Ed been convicted in Arlington, or if their family had access to good legal representation, Ed would not have been given a death sentence. The Moons are “white trash,” in Joe’s words, and so the odds were always loaded against Ed. The text also acknowledges that people of color, particularly black men, have the system even further stacked against them.

Finally, the media, the judicial system, and large sections of the public are complicit in this dysfunctional system, since they share and enhance its bloodlust. When the state government throws out Ed’s mercy appeal, the newspapers once again feature him at his worst, in “his mean-looking mug-shot,” and the state attorney on TV looks puffed up with pride, “so pleased you’d think he’d won first prize in a meat raffle.”

Crosson does not suggest that every convict is wrongly tried, like Ed. In fact, Ed mentions that several of his inmates are real “sickos” who were convicted for heinous crimes. However, even such people deserve to be treated with a modicum of respect, and justice begins with the acknowledgement of their humanity.

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Forgiveness as a Tool of Justice

Justice operates not only at a systemic level but also in interpersonal relationships. In all such cases, whether of systems or of individuals, it is forgiveness which works as the most effective instrument of justice. An early example of forgiveness in the book is Frank Pheelan’s widow, Mrs. Pheelan, who pushes for Ed’s death penalty to be revoked. Unlike Joe, Mrs. Pheelan does not have access to Ed’s version of the story, so she could have easily chosen to believe in his guilt. But regardless of Ed’s guilt or innocence, she wishes him a mitigated sentence. Although her declaration does not change Ed’s fate, it does offer an alternate model of justice in the text.

Though forgiving justice does not occur on a systemic level in Moonrise, it is revealed in the family dynamics of the Moon family, as well as in their relationships with other people. Ed forgives Joe for not spending more time with him, as life is “too short for that.” Joe, who is enraged at Nell for hiding that she is the daughter of prison warden Phillip Miller, realizes that he is damning her by association—just as he himself has been damned by virtue of being Ed’s brother.

Perhaps the best example of forgiveness is seen in Joe’s evolving view of Aunt Karen. Initially, Aunt Karen comes across as a tyrannical, narrow-minded woman who thinks Ed has ruined their family, but Joe slowly begins to think of her as the person who has been the best parent he and his siblings ever had. With aunt Karen around, “at least there was milk in the fridge / and clean clothes in the closets.”

When Aunt Karen finally turns up in Wakeling, days before Ed’s execution, Joe does not slam the door on her. He forgives her for abandoning Ed for all those years. As he says, forgiveness is not something one finds—it is what one chooses. Thus, the text poses an important question: If forgiveness is a choice, how would the world be if more people exercised that choice?

Grief, Rage, and Acceptance

In one of the late meetings between Joe and Ed, Ed tells his younger brother that the prison guards have been measuring him for his coffin and weighing him to determine the amount of poison it would take to kill him. Worse, they make Ed carry his own mattress and bedding to the chamber near the death cell. Hearing the horrific details, Joe is frozen by sadness:

My mind is mud:
Nothing moves in it.
What can I say to this?
What possible comfort could any words have?

Joe frequently feels paralyzed and angry in turns about the way things have turned out for Ed. He is also angry about the circumstances of his childhood and a world that strikes him as fundamentally unfair. Often, he lashes out against his sister, Angela; his girlfriend, Nell; and even Ed. When Father Michael, the prison’s chaplain, tries to offer Joe comfort, Joe reminds him that it was men, and not God, who have confined Ed into a prison, and Joe says Father Michael can “blow [his] God crap at someone else.” Since Joe is a teenager, his anger is presented as raw and unmitigated; unlike an adult might, he has not learned to rationalize his grief. The text is careful not to offer any easy lessons or platitudes about sadness and hope, choosing instead to preserve the undeniable cruelty of life.

The only redemption possible, Crossan suggests, is through accepting what has happened and trying to live one day at a time. As Ed reminds Joe after a mercy appeal falls through, time is measured not in days but in “moments.” In the last scene of the novel, Joe, now back home in Arlington after Ed’s execution, discovers a glow-in-the-dark moon that used to belong to Ed. Realizing that he never knew he had this bit of Ed, Joe scans their room for other such signs, since “you never know what you might find in the dark.” The symbolism of the novel’s title and its connection to their last name, Moon, spark briefly in this bittersweet moment. The grief about Ed’s loss is irreversible, but Joe will accept it and cherish the imprint of Ed in his life.

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