As I was saying yesterday, we Americans carry with us a pretty basic understanding of how “justice” is officially carried out in our names, and we “law-abiding” ones don’t usually give it much thought other than to see it as a deterrent to any “criminal” urges we or our fellow citizens might have. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, if it really does deter people from injuring others in some way. I think most would agree that when a person is violent or injurious to other people, we want that person’s liberty restrained so that they aren’t able to cause harm anymore. The question becomes, however, how long should their liberty be taken from them? And beyond that, who is responsible for dispensing this justice and why them? (And, furthermore, who guards the guards?)
In our system, a person yields his or her liberty the instant representatives of the justice system–e.g., the police–have “reasonable cause” to take custody of them. Sometimes this action actually addresses an incident of violence (though usually after it’s already happened), but, as in the case of the West Memphis Three (and, of course, plenty of others), sometimes the person in custody had nothing to do with the incident in question. The wealthy and well-connected among us (like “The Preppy Murderer” of the 1980s Robert Chambers) can usually afford the bail or bond necessary to liberate themselves (with certain constraints) while awaiting the opportunity to prove themselves innocent of the crimes they’re accused of. Persons of little means like Damien Echols in 1993, on the other hand, are obliged to await that opportunity in holding cells, sometimes for a year or more.
Is this justice?
Never mind all that imperfection, many of us would say. Despite its flaws, our system (which we share, more or less, with most other countries around the world) is still the best we have for addressing violence against society. Most of us probably can’t even conceive of another system, beyond a slightly more humane one focused on rehabilitation, which might address what happens inside the sequestered anti-society of prisons but fails to take a crack at the problem of the injustice of incarcerating innocents. A lot more of us, especially among our right-wing brothers and sisters (but not only among them), would, I’m sure, find the idea of “coddling” criminals in any way not only morally repulsive but financially expensive. Wrong doers, they argue–even people who are only mistaken as wrong doers (there must be some reason for the mistake, right?) –deserve no sympathy. If they suffer assault and rape after conviction, that’s all part of the deal of winding up on the wrong side of the law, isn’t it? In order for justice to heal crime’s victims, it has to hurt those we deem criminals. Right?
Here’s a short film from Sierra Leone’s NGO Fambul Tok (which translates to “Family Talk” from the country’s lingua franca, pidgin English) in which Executive Director John Caulker explains how it has approached the excruciatingly difficult problem of reconciling the victims of Sierra Leone’s decade-long civil war with those who committed the atrocities against them. I can’t make a better case than Caulker for this radical concept of justice, so utterly foreign to our punitive western concept, it may seem insane and impossible on first encounter.
Imagine replacing our obscenely expensive, perfunctory, irrational, ineffective and inhuman (not at all to say inhumane) system (or part of it) with something more like Fambul Tok’s, one in which victims of crimes and perpetrators confront each other directly and attempt to work through the real problems crime creates between people in communities. I admit, I can hardly imagine it myself, because our society has lost the ability or desire to work as a community. But I truly believe it’s something we should start thinking about and talking about. Fambul Tok is certainly a risk in cases of murder or other violence against persons. Not to say it isn’t a risk worth taking in some contexts. But it seems to me it could be tried at the Family Court level, for example, where most of the people injuring each other have tried to have community together, for better or worse.
It’s worth thinking about, at the very least. Isn’t it?