Humble Talent has issued an excellent and provocative post on one of the Great Ethics Controversies: what is fair, ethical and effective criminal justice punishment in a nation with the values of the United States?
I admit that this is an ethical blind spot for me, perhaps because I worked as both a defense attorney and a prosecutor. My natural inclination is toward the Baretta theme song: “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.” Or, for that matter, if you can’t pay the fine. I also believe, as Humble alludes to skeptically in his final paragraph, that the culture of the United States, emphasizing individual freedom and encouraging self-worth measured by success, does make criminal activity more common, and its history and culture also increase the frequency of violent crimes. I don’t trust cross cultural comparisons; I think they are all misleading, and often intentionally so. The United States is unique.
Nonetheless, all of the issues brought up in the post are complex and important to examine, carefully, seriously. I have not forgotten this post, though I needed Humble Talent’s comment to make me track it down, and I hereby pledge to make criminal justice issues, and especially prison, a higher priority here.
This is Humble Talent’s Comment of the Day on the post, “Comment Of The Day: ‘Unethical Tweet Of The Month: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY)’”
We’ve talked about this issue before, tangentially… And it’s something of a hot topic for me. It’s something that differentiates me from the group, I think, because it’s something I think America could do better, and it seems to be something that other right-leaning commentators are somewhere between apathetic to and actually proud of.
I think, and I could be wrong, but I think that this reaction is more of a rejection of the other side than a legitimate statement of belief. Progressives seem to no longer be content with the steady beat of “normal” progress, instead seeming to be approaching everything from politics to the personal with a militant quasi-religious fervour.
And to a point, who can blame them? If I listened and believed half of what their thought-leaders are telling them, I might be right there beside them. I’m of the opinion that people on the right feel like (and I agree with them, to an extent) they are perpetually under siege; their values, their way of life, their livelihoods, their basic understanding of the rules of the game of life. They’re given no rest, having the steady grind of not only the overt political messaging, but cultural and familial shifts happening around them in real time. And that’s worn away the dermis a little, they’re on their last nerves, and not picking their battles very well, instead opting to fight everything. Because otherwise…. The wholesale rejection of criticisms of the penal system seems… kinda shitty when you think about it.
America *does* send people to jail for things that aren’t even crimes in much of the rest of the world, and even if they are, those infractions often do not carry jail time. America *does* send those people for vastly disproportionate periods of time, and America *is* one of three modern democracies with active for-profit prisons (the other two being the UK and Australia, both of which also seem to have recurring prison population problems), Canada, France, and Israel all tried the model and found it wanting.
Worse; America, and particularly the right, generally, has a really rough view on prison conditions…. We kind of hashed this out during the “kids in cages” episodes, but there is a contingent of people, and it isn’t small, that seems to think that once someone has broken the law, literally any law, they have utterly forfeited the right to any amount of comfort. That everything that happens to them past that point is their own damn fault, and there are a few who seem to revel in the particularly bad conditions in some facility, seeming to partake in a sadistic glee at the idea of housing people in 100 degree concrete boxes.
This seems particularly cruel when you consider that following up on the earlier point of “America incarcerates a lot of people” an amazing number of American prisoners are in jail for being poor. They were levied a fee or a fine, could not pay it, and are in jail for contempt. “But Jeff” My handy Watson pipes in, “Those people are actually in jail for jaywalking, or whatever they got the fine for.” No… They’re in jail for failure to pay. They would not have a fine to pay if they hadn’t run afoul of whatever piddly thing created the fine in the first place, but they’re in jail because they could not pay it.
It also seems particularly unnecessary when you consider that it isn’t effective. Despite America throwing people in jail for the smallest of infractions, given sentences that are often grossly disproportionate to the crimes committed, in conditions sometimes contravene the Geneva Conventions…. At the end of the day, crime rates are somewhere between similar and worse than the rates of comparable nations.
Unless… Perhaps you want to argue that “American Exceptionalism” in this context means that Americans are exceptionally criminal, and what I see as excesses are really the only thing keeping the vastly disproportionate criminal element at bay. In which case, carry on. I suppose.