Thursday, April 16, 2009

Testing the waters...

I'm thinking of blogging again.

I'm inspired by Mark Bennett's Defending People, and I do believe that everyone is entitled to an opinion -- mine. So perhaps I should start sharing it again.

However, I intend to be an occasional blogger -- when something gets my goat, I'll come out of my yurt and yak about it.

Being from Harris County, Texas, my goat gets gotten frequently. Injustices tend to outnumber instances of justice. Yes, Justice is a vague term. But not so vague as some would think. And injustice is as concrete as a heart attack when it hits you.

Ambrose Bierce wrote that injustice is "A burden which of all those that we load upon others and carry ourselves is lightest in the hands and heaviest upon the back." A pretty apt description of sending someone to prison for a minor, or victimless, offense. It is easily done and difficult to endure. How is it that we can dispense cruel punishments so easily?

Perhaps it is fear of the other -- after all, defendants are mostly young, poor, and often minority, hardly the demographic of those who show up for jury duty.

Perhaps it is the fact that we live in a crowded world, and know so few of our neighbors, so it is easy to objectify strangers. Jurors feel like they are dealing with abstractions, not flesh and blood people, much less people JUST LIKE THEM.

Perhaps it is the fact that we feel no personal responsibility for our actions unless we can be punished for them. The ghost of Stanley Milgram continues to haunt our jury rooms.

Have Americans simply become this jaded -- that we think of prison as the first tool of choice to deal with social problems?

In Harris County, prosecutors routinely ask every member of the jury whether the purpose of punishment, in a criminal case, is rehabilitation or retribution. And most people answer the latter.

I have yet to hear a juror stand up and say what a stupid question this is. After all, the death penalty cannot exist for purposes of rehabilitation. And nobody thinks a teenaged shoplifter needs to do hard time. Whether the purpose is one or the other must be decided, by the jury (assuming jury punishment, as in Texas), on a case by case basis.

Yet instead of asking an INTELLIGENT question ("what would determine whether retribution or rehabilitation is the appropriate goal of punishment in this case?") the state resorts to a one-size-fits-all question, seeking jurors who will impose a one-size-fits-all punishment.

And defense lawyers, by and large, let them get away with it. Which, of course, is also stupid.