Tuesday, 10 May 2011

the practicalities of justice

last year i wrote a post on my own blog about how thankful i was in not having to interact with the justice system. i've managed to escape any serious involvement thus far, and given the interactions i have had were quite stressful, i can only imagine how difficult it is for people who are fully embroiled in this kind of thing.

possibly it's because i'm too soft-hearted, too much aware of social justice issues and that into punitive justice measures. but i find a decision to press charges to be a most difficult one. it can have such a powerful impact on someone's life: on their ability to earn a living, on their social standing and self-worth. it impacts others in the immediate family, not only in practical terms (eg losing a breadwinner) but in emotional terms given the shame and embarassment attached to such an event.

i don't believe those impacts are any greater for someone who is in a higher socio-economic class. i think the poorest of us can feel the same level of shame and embarassment as the richest, and the richest of us can be as immune to any kind of remorse as the poorest. i do think that poverty can cause a special kind of desperation that causes an increase in criminal action - hence the increase in crime when the unemployment rate rises.

i've never had to serve on a jury, but if i did, i know that i'd find it extremely difficult to come to a guilty verdict. even when the evidence is clear, and there is no doubt about motive & intention to harm. i would do it (ie vote for a guilty verdict) but i would hate to do it, knowing what i know about prisons, about the difficulties of families being broken up and innocent people suffering the consequences.

i do understand the need for justice and i don't deny the fact that people must be held accountable for their actions. i know that it would be extremely difficult for society to function without a justice system. it's just the practicalities of administering justice: i find it extremely hard to do and i hate the feeling of being responsible for destroying someone else's life. and yes, i know that the person who committed the crime is actually the one responsible for destroying their own life through their own actions. but being even the slightest bit involved in delivering that destruction, being a part of the process that sees a person descend into hopelessness and helplessness, is pretty difficult.

the reason we do it is, of course, for the victims of crime, and further potential victims if the offender isn't stopped. at least that's the only reason i would choose to put anyone through the grinder that is our justice system. i don't see that creating more misery will wipe out the misery that has already been caused by the crime.

i'd possibly feel differently if a criminal action had affected me personally - perhaps that primal need for vengeance would be much stronger than i imagine. i sincerely hope i never have to find out.


katy said...

I think it is interesting that people who can be quite compassionate when talking about perpetrators of some crimes are not when it comes to other kinds of crimes (ie, crimes involving sex, children etc). I found my own "prejudices" in this regard challenged recently in relation to the situation that led to Darren Hughes resignation and a comment that Sue Bradford made at the time about compassion for the perpetrators of crime (or something along those lines). I found it a bit of a struggle to think of the situation in those terms.

GoodGravey said...

The main problem I see is that a punitive "justice" system doesn't help anyone - as much as the vigilantism of many would have us believe. Restorative justice is another matter.

I've commented on this often, and been asked how I would feel if it was my wife/child/mother (why it is always a female I'm not sure) who was killed/raped/harmed. I always respond with "I would feel angry. I would feel like killing them. But I would know that this is just an immediate emotional reaction that would serve no purpose.

I would know that the greatest tribute to the victim would be that the offender can be made a productive member of society, who would do no further harm, and would actively work towards preventing harm being caused by others.

People are often quick to condemn those who commit crimes without stopping to think about what lead them to that point. As I have commented elsewhere, I realised long ago how thin the line is that separates "us" from those who commit the most heinous acts. It takes very little - a few small changes in our circumstance - and we can fall.

This never excuses the criminal acts, but helps put them into perspective. And as you say, stargazer, the offender's family is often a victim in this. While some will say "well the offender should have thought about that first", you can say the same thing of the primary victim. Such people effectively blame the family for the offender's actions.

I dislike jail as a sentence in all but the cases where people are recidivist offenders who show no capacity for remorse or rehabilitation. Such people need to be kept away from the public. Everyone else can be saved.

And I guess I can say this from a position of extreme privilege, but for once I can thank my privilege for being able to have that perspective.

stargazer said...

@ katy: i'm not sure if i would feel different. but there are too many factors involved for me to be clear about this in my own mind. for example, if it was myself or my child who was assaulted, it would be more the horror of the way society and the justice system treats victims of sexual violence that would stop me from pressing charges more than compassion for the offender or their family. however, the effect on the family is also a huge factor in not reporting a crime.

realistically, i'd agree with good gravey re restorative justice. i would so much prefer to rail at the person and explain to them face-to-face the effect their actions have had on me. it would also give me the opportuntiy to hear about that person's circumstances & understand why they did it. i'd want reprataion where appropriate, probably an apology, and treatment. i'd rather see the offender turn their life around than see them publicly humiliated and sent to jail.

katy said...

"i would so much prefer to rail at the person and explain to them face-to-face the effect their actions have had on me."

Someone I know well was involved in a violent assault (he was left for dead) at the end of last year, the offenders pleaded guilty so the process moved quite quickly and he was asked within a few months of the attack to participate in a restorative justice process. For him it was just too soon physically and emotionally and I get the feeling that it might take years to get to the point where this would be possible by which time the offenders will have been in jail for an extended period. I do agree with the idea of restorative justice and I think it must be a real challenge to think about how it can work in reality.

BTW the point in the previous comment was not so much about compassion influencing a decision about whether to initiate the legal process but more around how the idea of being compassionate in relation to sentencing and punishment seems to be easier for some crimes than for others.

Anonymous said...

I really take Katy's point. While my view of the world is a tad idealistic, it does ignore the state of the victim and their ability at that point in time to engage in some sort of restoration.

I guess the problem there is that, I think, it is in everyone's interest for the justice process to be timely, perhaps speedy, but it also needs to bear in mind the timeframes of those who have been affected.

stargazer said...

oh yes, i totally accept that restorative justice isn't for everyone, just what would probably work best for me. but as i've said, that is a theoretical position.