How Moral Is Our Justice System?

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How Moral Is Our Justice System?

(Cartoon by Andrew Goulet ’16)

(Cartoon by Andrew Goulet ’16)

(Cartoon by Andrew Goulet ’16)

(Cartoon by Andrew Goulet ’16)

By Guest Contributor

I recently watched a film (pronounced “filum” in Ireland. I think the technical term for such an elaboration between two consonants is called a schwa, and if that doesn’t do something for you … ) titled The Guard; it comes with my highest recommendation and also a sufficient and heartening dose of Irish-ness for the culturally explorative laymen, if you’re interested. An impression remained in my mind as the credits curtailed the Shakespearean-style ending — virtually every character is put rather unceremoniously to death — the police force in Ireland (called the Garda) is remarkably easy-going. Irish police don’t even carry guns — only comically large nightsticks.

To start, let me draw some attention to the fact that the Irish border patrol has fewer things to worry about then, say, America’s. They remind me of a certain dated and far-fetched image: a kind of Leave it to Beaver relationship between stick swinging beat cops and gracious tax-paying American passers-by, the one sending nods of quaint salutation to the other (note: this image is probably the product of too many viewings of It’s a Wonderful Life). But America is too big and her history is too deeply pocked with inter-race and inter-class struggle to foster anything like that. Our justice system is just too damn mean for that. We value our safety and our freedom too much for that. Yes, America values freedom so much so that she imprisons more people per capita than any other country in the world. America imprisons more people than 26 of the largest European nations combined.

There are countless factors responsible for this last fact: an increasingly privatized prison-industrial complex that makes a business out of incarceration and creates an incentive to imprison, an irresponsibly strict (and racially motivated) stance on drug use, rampant socio-economic inequality and a race-relations rap sheet that, via comparison, makes most other countries look like the rainbow-framed multiracial handholding pictures we drew in elementary school art class. As far as these issues are concerned, I will be rather brief in expressing my opinion: privatization of something with as much moral consequence as the imprisonment of our citizens is just dumb — regardless of any marginal reduction in costs. For a country that values freedom so much, the fact that personal marijuana use is illegal is a bigger slap to the face than the fact that an 18-year-old can purchase a Remington shotgun three years before he can buy a Jager-bomb. And, if we want to reduce crime, why don’t we concern ourselves more with the well being of our more impoverished citizens?Systemic and prolonged generational poverty engenders the kind of culture where crime becomes expected, even acceptable. As Dostoyevsky put it, “Feed them first and then demand virtue of them.”

My main concern is that we’re so busy “holding people accountable” that we’ve neglected to update our conception of justice to match the great civilization we fancy ourselves a part of. We might start by realizing that some combination of factors, natural and environmental, leads an individual to commit crimes. We might realize that blaming and chastising these people is both philosophically unsound and largely ineffective. I’m not suggesting we pat violent criminals on the back and give them a Snickers bar for the road, but there is no real sense in which they ought to be punished — unless we resolve ourselves to be a society of sadists with a warped and antiquated sense of justice. Why do we let barbaric notions of vengeance guide our judicial system? Our primary goal should be the betterment of our society and the compassionate treatment of our citizens. Obviously someone should be held accountable for a criminal action: they ought to be removed from society to avoid causing others harm. But once that is achieved, our primary and solitary concern should be their rehabilitation, not their abuse. I’m not recommending a specific system, but merely a change in attitude. To summarize: certain forms of punishment are beneath us and are morally wrong.

The obvious problem with such a concept is that jail might become attractive — people might commit crimes just to have a roof over their heads and hot meals to eat. I might argue that moral conviction and the natural human desire for freedom are enough to make crime and prisons unattractive. The worse case scenario is that someone abusing the prison system will end up in a place where he or she is educated, counseled, rehabilitated and taught the benefits of involvement in mainstream society. Either way, crime in general will decrease if we started paying more attention to reforming inmates instead of frightening them, if we started recognizing that crime is an environmental problem more than it is a personal one. And, if prison guards and police officers truly understood themselves as community servants rather then as instruments of violence and intimidation, then maybe we might restore some mutual respect between the law and the people it seeks to protect.

Mohan Fitzgerald ’14

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