Law, Order, and a Better Society

What makes us a better society? What elevates humankind above the animals in our social machinations? At what point does upholding the law get in the way of justice, and what is the social and moral cost of those laws?

I am by no means an anarchist, and if truth be told I’m likely far more of a hardliner on crime and punishment than your average liberal. I believe in strict laws and strict punishment for breaking those laws. There are, to be sure, liberal tells in my views of law and order, though. I do not, under any circumstances, believe in the death penalty, and I favor a penal system that focuses more on rehabilitation than on actual punishment.

Our legal system should be hard, prison should be hard. But it should be fair, and the entire system should be geared towards creating a better society, a society that fosters good and lawful behavior. This goal, I believe, cannot be achieved through harsh edicts alone.

And so my approach to how we fight crime and prosecute crime is full of seeming contradictions that I don’t think can be easily categorized as right or left. But this is perhaps one of those areas where a strictly partisan debate is more of a hindrance than an aid.

Partisanship itself can be good. It creates an arena for conflicting ideas to battle it out, but the downfall of partisanship is that it can mask the ultimate goals. Such is the case when it comes to crime.

What is crime? Why do we combat it? Why do we have laws and why do we enforce them?

These are the core questions behind the construct of our legal system. They hint at what we want our society to be like. I don’t think anyone harbors delusions that through laws we can one day all hold hands and sing in harmony with each other day or night, but we do continually strive for the kind of society where we can walk down our streets without fear of being assaulted. We do want to know that the money and possessions that we work hard for remain in our custody as opposed to being seized whether through the break-in of a petty thief, or through the machinations of a high powered corporate crook.

We want to know that our lives are not being endangered by our fellow citizens, either through malice or through ignorance. And given the flawed nature of humanity, I think it is a safe bet that neither will ever go away completely.

So when I tell you that I’m something of a hardliner, I want you to understand where I’m coming from. I want to be able to go out to my car and not find it gutted by some thief. I don’t want to have to stare down the barrel of a gun (again). I don’t want my little girls to have to go through their lives afraid of being raped or beaten, and it would be incredibly nice if they didn’t feel the pressure of partaking in narcotics, nor live in the gutted skeleton of a community that is inflicted by heavy drug use.

I want, we want, a society that gives us the opportunity to work hard at what we do, build a life for ourselves, and not have that life, in part or in whole, stripped away from us without wrongdoing on our own part.

Which is why, for being as much of a hardliner as I am, I also approach the concept of punishment apprehensively at best. What is punishment? Negative reinforcement. Forcing the offender to atone for his or her sins on a moral level, perhaps?

Again, it should be hard, it should be undesirable. Negative reinforcement is a part of the way humans learn. It’s built into our genetic coding; that is part of what pain is after all. Pain is a warning system, true. It tells us when our body is facing a threat. But it is also a learning system. We see a fire and it is the pain receptors in our finger tips that tells us, “Hey, you don’t want to do that again” when we put our hand in the flame.

But negative reinforcement has its limitations. For one, I believe it only works towards certain situations of a specific level of basic understanding. You have to understand the situation in full in order to completely learn the lesson that is being offered. With our fire scenario above, you see fire, it hurts, so you don’t touch it again, which points to another limitation of negative reinforcement; the alternative must also be readily grasped and attainable by the subject.

Not sticking our fingers in the fire is an easily performed and grasped concept. But what if the situation is more complex? What if the situation is now drugs or some other vice? Cigarettes provide an excellent example. How many people are diagnosed with a terrible smoking related condition such as cancer or emphysema but still don’t quit because the alternative avenue is not so easily attained?

And of course there is the fact that negative reinforcement can be overcome. We can become desensitized either intentionally or unintentionally. Intentionally, we see this perhaps through martial artists and athletes who “play through the pain” until they simply don’t feel the pain anymore. Unintentionally, we can see this in some habitual criminals who become “institutionalized.”

And so even hardliners must come to the realization that simply ramping up the negative reinforcement aspect of our law and order philosophy will never result in the kind of betterment of society that we all hope for.

Indeed, often times the hardliner stance can be taken way too far and do more damage than good.

Take, for instance, the case of Frances Johnson, a grandmother ailing from diabetes and cancer and who now faces eviction under DC’s “one strike and you’re out,” policy. This because her grandson allegedly held a small quantity of marijuana in Johnson’s home.

Marijuana itself is a touchy subject. I used to be hardset against the legalization of the drug, but have since come around towards legalization (and no, not because I started partaking in the drug myself).

But this strikes me as a case of the law simply going way too far. Frances Johnson is described as a “pillar of the community,” who took in children and provided them with a safe and wholesome place to play after a drug bust occurred in the neighborhood, and continues to encourage children to attend Sunday school by preparing breakfast for them at church.

Here’s a woman who gives to her community despite her own terrible adversities, and the hardliner stance upon law and order puts her at risk of not having a place to live anymore.

Which I suppose is the entire point. We see communities devolving, we see our neighborhoods descending into violence and drugs, and we immediately jump to the conclusion that we must crack down on crime, and we must make punishments harsher, all for the sake of teaching would-be criminals a lesson.

But life doesn’t work like that, and in this instance, innocent people are getting caught up in the broad net that hardliners have cast. Meanwhile, what benefit is there to be had? Was there ever a lesson for Frances Johnson to learn? No. And what of her grandson? The marijuana charges have been dropped, and by the columnist’s account, he doesn’t seem to have been much in the way of a bad seed to begin with.

Indeed, he was the one who was taking care of his grandmother whose illnesses required continuous care.

For him, there were few lessons to be learned and for the both of them many punishments to be had. Earnest Johnson, who once dreamed of being President of the United States and awarding his grandmother with a thousand dollars for all the work she has done for her community, must now move away from a grandmother that needs him. But what can he do now to make things better?

He was taking care of Frances whilst working at a grocery store of all places.

The system here is haphazard, it strikes a swift, indiscriminate blow, and the lives of no one is made better for the effort. When that is compared to those aspects of societal betterment that has made me the hardliner that I am, I only find that the reverse of what I would like to see has happened.

(edited by DrGail)

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