The Collegian
Wednesday, July 08, 2020

The Walk: Criminal Justice

<p>Graphic by Jackie Llanos</p>

Graphic by Jackie Llanos

Editor's Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian.

There is a fundamental fact in the world that should be the basis of how we think about criminal justice, and yet it is almost never discussed in the relevant conversations: It is better to suffer injustice than to commit it. As Socrates said in a Plato's "Gorgias," "It is a greater evil to do than to suffer injustice."

Though this idea has existed at least since the time of Socrates, we have failed to internalize it in our considerations about how we respond to wrongdoing. 

Although this is a nice-sounding phrase, it does present some troubling cases if we accept it. If we did, we would be required to say, to use the classic Platonic example, that the just man being tortured on the rack is better off than his torturers. We would also have to say that a murder victim is better off than a murderer and that slaves are better off than slaveholders. 

As implausible as these statements sound, go back to each pair of lives that I laid out and ask yourself if you would rather be the one suffering injustice or the one committing it. I think most people would choose to suffer injustice. For any two states, choosing state A over state B implies that A is more choice-worthy than B, and that therefore B is worse than A. This means that those of us who would choose to suffer injustice rather than commit it believe that those who suffer injustice are better off than those who commit it. 

So why would we choose to suffer injustice, when the material well-being of those who are suffering injustice is clearly worse than that of the perpetrator? This indicates that our intuitive conception of well-being extends beyond our physical condition and includes mental condition as well. 

Consider the type of person who would torture a just man or murder or enslave someone. These people do not necessarily feel guilty about doing so and might live their days in perfect contentment about what they have done. If we accept this and still believe that we would rather not be them, there must exist an aspect of our mental condition that lies outside how we feel. This part of our mental condition is the extent to which our desires are well-formed. 

Essentially, if you take pleasure in good things and pain at bad things, you are better off than if you take pleasure in bad things and pain at good things. This is why we are able to say that those who commit injustices, even if they are not punished for them and even if they do not feel bad about committing them, are doing poorly. Their desires are poorly formed and this makes a life bad, regardless of physical or emotional well-being. 

With these premises in mind, we can now turn to how a criminal justice system ought to operate. I’m going to assume that every crime committed is an injustice. I know this is not really how the world works, but that will ease the terminology and let us examine the mindset of people who step outside the lines of society, without mucking our discussion up with unjust laws and such. 

If a person commits a crime, they do so either when it is in their rational self interest or when it is not in their rational self interest. For example, the person stealing bread to feed their family does so because it is in their rational self interest. On the other hand, the person who finds their partner cheating on them and then kills their partner does so even though it is not in their rational self interest.

For the first case, when people have their basic needs satisfied, it is less likely for crime to be in their rational self interest. So, with an expanded social safety net that provides for everyone's basic needs, this sort of crime is less frequent. 

The second case is more complicated. What is to be done with people who commit crimes despite the fact that doing so makes their life worse? People who do so are in some way unwell and therefore are in need of compassion and healing. I don't mean this to be read as a stronger statement than it is. Everybody is in some way unwell, I speed and don't maintain a tidy living space, among other numerous faults. However, those whose unwellness causes them to significantly harm others and/or themselves are especially in need of help. Instead of punishment, which has little preventative effect and certainly very little rehabilitative effect, the purpose of the criminal justice system should be healing.

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When someone commits an injustice, it should be seen as an indication of an underlying unwellness that can be solved to make society and the person better. 

That being said, a focus on healing those who commit injustice does complicate the structure of society, because committing a crime can’t be the only way to receive help and healing. People must also be able to ask for help and receive it, without encountering the mindset that people who ask for help from the government are looking for a handout or trying to game the system. Even if someone is trying to “game the system,” that is an indication that they are unwell in some way and are therefore in need of our help. 

To contribute to The Walk, email Opinions and Columns Editor Conner Evans at opinions@thecollegianur.com.

Contact columnist Cal Pringle at cal.pringle@richmond.edu. 

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