We walked in, sat down, Obie came in with the twenty seven eight-by-ten
colour glossy pictures with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back
of each one, sat down. Man came in said, “All rise.” We all stood up,
and Obie stood up with the twenty seven eight-by-ten colour glossy
pictures, and the judge walked in sat down with a seeing eye dog, and he
sat down, we sat down. Obie looked at the seeing eye dog, and then at the
twenty seven eight-by-ten colour glossy pictures with circles and arrows
and a paragraph on the back of each one, and looked at the seeing eye dog.
And then at twenty seven eight-by-ten colour glossy pictures with circles
and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one and began to cry,
’cause Obie came to the realization that it was a typical case of American
blind justice, and there wasn’t nothing he could do about it, and the
judge wasn’t going to look at the twenty seven eight-by-ten colour glossy
pictures with the circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each
one explaining what each one was to be used as evidence against us. And
we was fined $50 and had to pick up the garbage in the snow, but thats not
what I came to tell you about.
Arlo Guthrie, Alice’s Restaurant
As if my life did not already have enough drama, last night things kicked up a notch. I got a phone call from Eddie, extremely agitated and needing a little love and support. He has to go to court today – which I already knew – but instead of it being a simple case that he could beat or pay a fine, now it is possible that he could end up sentenced to as much a eighteen months in county lock-up. Obviously, this is a very bad thing.
The issue is pure domestic – his ex-wife had given him a place to stay while they were separated, but before the divorce. One night, she came home in a mood and so he took off for a while to give her some space. When he got back, her funk was worse (I personally suspect that she had a fight with her boyfriend) and she was giving him a hard time, telling him to sleep on the couch (instead of with their son). That probably would have been okay, except their son woke and started calling for Eddie – so like an idiot, he pushed past her into the bedroom to check on the little one. By the time he finished helping out their son in the bathroom, a couple of cops were standing there and putting him in cuffs. The charge? Felony Trespassing.
Now, first off, I now have absolutely no respect for his ex-wife: anyone that calls on the police to settle personal disputes with such little provocation is simply not someone that I have any interest in knowing. I’m sure there was baggage between them, but I simply do not see any valid justification for her actions.
Second, and this is what I want to talk about, our legal system has become completely bloated and ineffective — as Eddie said last night “this is why we call it the legal system, now, instead of the the Justice System, anymore.” What, exactly, is the point of a system that never solves any problems, never makes anything better and simply does not have any interest in truth or circumstance?
Once upon a time, this was the point of laws and customs: to provide a framework that would allow all parties involved to find a better place, to heal and to protect the community as a whole from further damage. But somewhere along the way, (personally, I blame Hammurabi) we switched to a system of retribution. And retribution, at it’s best, helps nothing. At it’s worst, it makes the entire situation far worse.
So what alternative do we have? I, personally, would love to see the entire system scrapped as a bad idea. Start fresh with entirely different principles and goals. I believe that his is intimately tied up with building new cultures and new lifestyle systems. However, there is a movement to try and re-frame our justice systems within the current paradigm: Restorative Justice is based upon traditional, tribal methodologies of solving dispute and slights (big or small). It is not a simple process, involving everyone impacted by the harmful action as well as everyone involved in perpetrating the harmful action as well as facilitators skilled in the process of Restorative Justice. What they do is bring everyone together and give everyone the opportunity to express themselves, allow the perpetrators to face, and embrace, the consequences of their actions. And then discuss and find consensus on what action is necessary to repair the harm that has been done.
It sounds pretty damn idealistic, but in fact, it has been very effective in a number of cases. Bishop Desmond Tutu supported The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa as a tool to heal the damage of apartheid:
South Africa surprised many outside observers, who expected that the fall of apartheid would spawn further violence as victims of discrimination lashed out at their former oppressors, he said. Instead, the country showed that a program of “restorative justice” could help right past wrongs without resorting to retribution.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission promoted truth-telling and forgiveness instead of violence and reprisals, he said. By establishing the commission, Tutu said, South Africa avoided two equally bad choices: a series of Nuremberg-style trials, or the sort of amnesty that would attempt to hide old injustices.
By fostering accountability and forgiveness, Tutu said, the commission gave South Africa a restorative justice that promoted healing over punishment and reconciliation over revenge.
Likewise, there has been a growing movement in Canada, starting with First Nations Peoples and spreading into other areas of the country as its success has become apparent. It has been clear in Canada that Restorative Justice Programs can not completely supplant Retributive Justice in all cases (in mass society), yet the movement continues to grow and show great promise.
Like so many of my complaints about out modern mass society, this issue comes down to one basic critique: does our current legal system work for people. I would say no, absolutely not, rather the opposite. And if does not work for people, then what is the point?
Originally posted January 29, 2007