Tuesday, June 5, 2012

In which I wish for a kinder, gentler world

I'm kind of a crime junkie. And I'm kind of a web junkie. And, last but by no means least, I'm kind of a comments on crime news web site junkie. I can't help myself. Some people in the public have some really weird ideas about criminal justice. I find it instructive to read what prospective jurors have to say, how they think. Instructive and at times terrifying.

One of the things I find the most terrifying is how many people are willing, even eager, to write off criminals, just throw them away. Every story is filled with comments calling the suspect trash, POS, worthless, lowlife, scum. (And let's not pretend this is about internet anonymity, because it isn't. People say the same vile things when it's linked to their Facebook accounts. In fact, the FB comments are generally worse than the anonymous CNN ones.)

I don't get it. How people can be so mean and hateful and judgmental. How people can think any human being is a waste of space. Especially when the crimes they've committed (or are accused of) are really pretty minor. When the issue is really one of mental health or substance abuse or self-esteem. Call me a pollyanna, a bleeding heart, naive, ridiculous, or whatever else you can think of. But I don't think anyone is worthless. And I don't think that people who throw around names and descriptors and adjectives like that have any claim to the moral high ground. I also believe that people are more than the worst thing they've ever done. Even if that worst thing is triple homicide or rape of a child.

But when MTV's Teen Mom Amber, whose troubles have already resulted in her losing custody of her child, gets a 5 year prison sentence for drug crimes, someone (who I'm tempted to name because she wrote it on MSNBC's FB page) wants to see "how tough she is when she becomes someone else's bitch!" Someone else thinks "We have sunk pretty low as a society if we really care about this lowlife..." See, I always thought it was NOT caring about people that would be a sign of societal decline.

Does it really cost anyone anything to spare a little sympathy for this troubled young woman? To reserve judgement? To think she's probably not a totally worthless human being? I know that not everyone wants to do what I do and stand up with these people, advocate for them. I do it because someone has to. (It's a fundamental right that we're supposed to value in our society, after all.) And I do it because the sad reality is that so many of these people never have had anyone stand up for them before. Odds are that Amber's parents weren't great prizes who treasured her, showed her compassion, made her think she was worth anything. So would it kill the rest of us who had good parents or inner resources or for whatever other reason didn't go down the wrong path to still view those who do make mistakes, even big, criminal ones, with something less than total disdain, contempt, or hatred?

The Ambers of the world definitely need to face consequences for their actions. She definitely needs a little tough love. And it's probably best for her child that she doesn't have custody right now. And there are a lot of people who really do need to be in secure facilities so they can't hurt themselves or others. But it seems like an awful lot of people have gone so overboard on the tough thing and have forgotten to spare any room for the love part. I wish it would stop. I wish empathy and compassion would come back into vogue. I wish people would stop being proud of the idea that some people are trash. No one is worthless. And I think we'd all be better for it if we could live by that principle. 

Of course, the same people who would throw away their fellow humans would also think that the bleeding heart who would defend criminals (even a sad and pathetic one like Amber) is also vile scum just wasting space on this earth. So my hope for more kindness on earth is probably wasted on them. Sigh.


Meryl said...

The last devoted optimists....well, hopefully not the last, but sometimes it does feel like it.

CLH said...

I'm not a lawyer yet, I don't even get to begin the joys of law school until next fall. I started the path towards my law degree after witnessing my family, and some of my friends, go through the nightmare that is the Texas criminal justice system (though it is improving quite a bit, thanks to constant advocacy, and a few decent politicians on both sides of the aisle). I have a brother in jail for probably life, and a sister getting out of a 10 yr stint next year. No one likes to think about the consequences of incarceration on society or on the individuals incarcerated until it happens to them or one of their family members. I was a usual right wing nut job at one point, until I caught an officer lying on the stand regarding my sister's trial, and when my brother was given maximum sequential sentences simply because his defense attorney couldn't be bothered to even conduct a mitigation investigation. I "saw the light" as it were, and have been advocating for sane criminal justice practices ever sense. The problem is ignorance. It's hard for people to not have empathy when they know about and understand the consequences of "tuff on crime" vs. "smart on crime" policies. Look at Norway's recidivism, crime rate, and cost of incarceration vs that of the US- it's far, far lower on all counts. A little something to think about?

Anonymous said...


I enjoy reading your posts. Thank you.

I could not agree with you more, regarding how judgmental we have become. It is depressing how quickly folks are to vilify others. It seems to me this is a change that has occurred in the last decade, although maybe it is just more visible (and acceptable) now.

We have lost the concept of "there but for the grace of God go I." In politics, the idea I was raised with, that "you can dislike the person but must respect the office", has disappeared. (I know, I'm showing my age.)

I have followed a few high-profile cases in the media, and found a total lack of intellectual honesty among many commenters. Facts are made up, twisted, and ignored, sometimes by the media itself.

As a society, we are too willing to lock people up, and throw away the key. The old idea of rehabilitation as a justification for incarceration is completely lost.

Anyway, thanks for your posts.


S said...

RD - thanks for the kind words. I agree.

CLH- I, too, have a family member who got caught in the criminal justice system and is much the worse for it. I dearly wish that he had been dealt with differently when he was young because there was the chance to keep him on the path to productive citizenry but our no-(non)sense tough on crime attitude screwed him for life. If he had never been incarcerated to begin with...

Good luck with law school.

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