Monday, April 14, 2014

Justice is in no hurry

American justice is about as good as it gets. It is shaped by centuries of crime and punishment. From earliest times lawbreakers have known they would be punished by confinement, stoning, being drawn and quartered or whipped. Yet they went right on breaking laws, generation after generation.

Governors still go to prison, and so do wealthy leaders of commerce and finance.

Candidates for public office sometimes boast that they are not politicians, but practitioners of business. “After all, the chief business of the American people is business,” according to the fellow who was president when I was born. Business supports government with taxes and influences government by giving money to politicians.

But enforcement of high ethical standards in both business and politics is less than total, as any number of convicted figures in both fields can testify. Politicians and business operators may ensnare themselves in fraud, Ponzi schemes, insider trading, forgery, embezzlement, bribery, cybercrime and anything else that has a dollar sign attached.   

It is said that American taxpayers spend more per year to keep a prisoner locked up than they spend on sending a person to college. Not long ago The Atlantic reported that one year at Princeton cost $37,000 and one year in a New Jersey state prison cost $44,000.

Why do some cops and lawyers break laws? Why do the wealthy steal? Why do spouses stab and shoot each other? Why do some clergy defy the laws of church and state? Why do lawbreakers break the same laws, knowing the penalties, century after century?

Why are penalties for scurrilous behavior so uneven? The government shaped by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson has been made a sponsor of torture and assassination. Across the face of the Supreme Court appear the words Equal Justice Under Law, words which are mocked in Guantanamo.

Nobody knows all of the answers. Criminal studies will have to become less traditional and more scientific to find out. The best way to protect victims of crime may be to find out why the perpetrators perp. Do they get satisfaction from outwitting others? Is the attraction similar to gambling, taking a chance, betting on luck? Are there treatable sexual and emotional issues that draw otherwise ordinary people into creepy acts?

In the cities killings day by day add up quickly, sometimes without the flow of headline ink that makes mass murders so indelible. We grieve for the victims and despise the aggressors, the monsters, and we ponder ways to punish them. That’s the system. From the beginning it has neglected adequate study of criminals to find out why they do it, what’s in it for them, how prevention might be shaped.

In a world of cause and effect we search for causes of cancer and establish causes of polio. The search for cures of physical ailments is properly intense, but it is not matched in intensity by a search for causes that might lead to an easing, if not a cure, of criminal misbehavior.

Humans have the means to do this. But so far, not the will.




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