Years ago I was leaving the supermarket with my daughter, then in kindergarten. I breezed past someone asking for money for a dog rescue — and she looked up at me, shocked and incensed: “Daddy, you’re mean!”
It really made me think. In short order I also stopped worrying about all the ways a panhandler could misuse the money I gave him. I stopped offering to buy him lunch when what he really wanted from me was cash. I had a pretty good idea where the money was going. But patronizing charity never seemed like a completely human gesture. Finally I took a page from the Talmud: when someone asks you for money, reach into your pocket and don’t even ask.
Of course, this makes you a compassionate chump. But it’s pretty liberating to give out of habit and not have to run through all the permutations like a tightly-wound investor. The reason for this, as I learned, is to avoid having your heart grow hard — to not permit yourself to become cruel.
And isn’t this what a human society and its justice system should be founded on? Compassion that errs on the side of — yes — even foolishness? We congratulate ourselves on our high standards for prosecution — beyond the shadow of a doubt. Our Constitution forbids cruel and unusual punishments, even for savage crimes. And once upon a time generosity and benefit of the doubt were even intended to be part of the justice system. But compassion has long dried up as we become increasingly the severe, judgmental Puritans who founded this country.
Justice tempered with compassion was also a feature of ancient Jewish halakha. A violent crime had to have two witnesses who saw it committed with their own eyes. Even when there was absolutely no doubt of guilt, if all twenty-three judges of the sanhedrin voted to convict the accused it was assumed that something had gone terribly wrong with the ruling — that some measure of compassion had been overlooked — and the man was acquitted.
But truth be told, we angry citizens are little more today than a mob hiding behind the respectable but vengeful face of the courts. We as individuals easily pronounce harsh online sentences on each other after taking only a moment to read a post. Lumped together as a jury, we vote to convict after obscenely short deliberations. The judges we appoint follow minimum sentencing guidelines to explicitly eliminate human compassion. For all our moral posturing, the mechanized justice we dispense is no wiser or kinder than a Taliban stoning or a Puritan witch burning. We have, in fact, perfected cruelty by putting it on an assembly line.
Ninety-five percent of violent crimes are never heard in court because most defendants in America today are pressured into plea deals by terrifying, inflated charges and poverty that eliminates any chance of an adequate defense. Prosecutors will convict on the basis of faulty evidence or bias, or community anger, or suppressed exculpatory evidence. In prison inmates can spend years behind bars for nonviolent crimes, or serve sentences largely in solitary. Our prison system is the largest in the world and it has become just another piece of a corrosive and exploitative capitalist economy.
Once a prisoner completes his sentence, society marks him with a scarlet “F” for felon and he becomes unemployable, disenfranchised, and a pariah for life. He is turned out onto the street with little more than cab fare, years of probation ahead, and few skills to feed himself or his family — once back in the world of upright, moral, angry men.
And when a death is involved the angry men demand blood that can only be appeased by the state’s own murder of the guilty. It sounds almost like the sick satanic ritual it is: the condemned is injected with concoctions of poisonous drugs, whose provenance and composition are kept secret, while onlookers peer through curtains as the man gasps and chokes and suffers on a gurney overseen by a physician who has renounced his promise to, first, do no harm.
Without reforms long recognized but never implemented because they might make us all compassionate chumps, the judicial system continues to tilt toward injustice, the twisted, and the cruel. The very notion of mercy has been completely excised from the courts. Rehabilitation may have once been a fleeting ideal, but it can no longer be found in prisons operated increasingly by get-tough political grandstanders.
All that remains of the justice system today is the angry, vengeful state doing the work of its angry, vengeful citizens, demanding blood and usually getting it.