Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Criminal Justice

I try to avoid second guessing juries, even when they don't come out the way I might think they should. And I generally would not say that any acquittal in the criminal justice system shows that the system is not working. That's because our criminal justice system is supposed to be based on the premise that it is better that ten guilty men go free than that one innocent person is convicted. A wrongful conviction might be used as evidence that the system is not working. But an acquittal, even of a guilty defendant, shows the system is working the way it was designed.

But if the acquittal in the Zimmerman case can be taken as evidence that the system is working the way it is set up to work, why are so many people dissatisfied with the outcome? And even if the jury had convicted, a large number of people--different people--would probably still have been dissatisfied.

What happened to Trayvon Martin is tragic. But it was always a difficult case to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, which might be one reason the Florida prosecutors initially did not want to pursue it, until a public outcry forced their hand. In addition to the ambiguities and conflicts in testimony that make it difficult to determine exactly what happened, the case also exposed deep divides in the way people perceive dangers, in the way we decide who to empathize with, and who we fear. If you're George Zimmerman, a black teenager wearing a hood is probably up to no good. He's the "other." If you're Trayvon Martin, an armed neighborhood vigilante is someone to be feared. If we were instead talking about a white teenager being stalked by an armed black vigilante, many people's perceptions of who is one of "us" and who is the "other" would change. To the extent these kinds of biases caused Trayvon Martin's death, and might affect the way people perceive and perhaps decided this case, it's understandable that the case aroused passions.

Whenever the criminal justice system reaches a result that does not accord with the sense of justice of one segment of the community, it's not so much that the system failed as that the system is inherently limited by the biases and prejudices of the people who make the laws and decide cases. The system is designed to reflect the community's sense of justice, but when the community is divided, we are not going to be able to get results that satisfy everyone. 

The real failure in this case might might be the failure of the criminal justice system in this case to do anything to deal with the underlying causes of violence, or in any way to address the needs of any of the participants. If George Zimmerman's first request after being acquitted was to ask for his gun back, the system obviously hasn't done anything to reduce his fears, or to reduce the possibility of continued violence. And if Trayvon Martin's supporters feel that people whom they perceive as predators are being encouraged, not punished, that only reinforces people's feelings of being the outcasts and victims of a hostile society. And so this result might only perpetuate a vicious cycle of violence.

Some of these failures might be overcome if we moved toward a more restorative model of criminal justice, a movement that is gaining a lot of favor in school disciplinary systems. Such efforts would more directly address the distrust and misunderstandings that can lead to violent crime.

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