Archive for the 'criminal justice' Category

The limits of a criminal justice system

August 3, 2011

We have a number of stories in today’s New York Times in which a criminal justice system is being asked to serve needs for which I think it may be unsuited.

What will help Egypt and Egyptians?  How to handle a young man with mental health problems who has apparently murdered someone?  (My comments are numbers 13 and 26, respectively.)  Processing these situations through a criminal justice system is preferable to many other alternatives, such as vigilantism and blood feuds, to be sure.  But are we trying to assuage our own wounds from the actions of others through observing something that happens to them?

I have certainly felt others have “done me wrong” in certain situations.  Even in those situations (like medical malpractice and defamation) with pretty obvious legal recourse available, I haven’t gone that route, and I’m actually a member of a bar (though I don’t practice).  And with people whose behavior I have felt damaged by, I haven’t necessarily tried to work things out with them in order to find my own healing — the two issues I see as separate and distinct: what happens with the other person and what I need.

With situations eligible for processing through a criminal justice system, there seems to me to be a tangling of what will be effective for the good of the whole with the needs of people damaged by the behavior at issue.  My concern is that the way we have fashioned our criminal justice systems, we don’t actually promote healing of the damage already inflicted and we do perpetuate a cycle of inflicting new damage.  Keeping a person from continuing to damage others is one thing, punishment of them is another.  Punishment that results in a healthier person engaging in healthier behavior is a worthy goal, but I don’t think our criminal justice systems are geared toward that outcome, whether as a matter of intention or of result.

In some approaches to situations we characterize as “alcoholism,” it is pointed out that people dealing with those actually doing the drinking often become negatively affected in their own behavior — in different ways from the alcoholic but affected nonetheless.   My concern with our use of our criminal justice systems is whether we without realizing it come to behave in ways that perpetuate dysfunction and do not actually result in healing ourselves or improving human relations.