Introduction to the Author

Crimes and Punishments: In the 21st Century (4 of 50)

It can be said that most Americans have a tenuous relationship to our criminal laws. Few of us have a sense of just how many criminal statutes can be brought to bear on our lives, an excuse to limit our freedom and movement should a representative of the state decide it is our turn to fall under the thumb of enforcement.

Police management scholar Michael Wood was previously one of those state representatives, having served 11 years as an officer, narcotics detective, and Sergeant in the Baltimore Police Department.

During that period, Wood came to see how racism was entrenched in the enforcement of law, rendering rules that ostensibly serve to keep society safe an arbitrary exercise of power and (structural) prejudice. Additionally, he came to see just how many laws granted him leave to exercise that power on behalf of prejudice, providing him a ready arsenal of charges he could level at citizens any time his arrest numbers were too low for comfort (arrests, after all, being the principal metric by which police officer performance and effectiveness are judged).

For a number of years now, Wood has been advocating for an approach to police organization that would allow citizens greater say in the goals and desired outcomes of policing, leaving police professionals to implement those goals. His model, known as Civilian-Led Policing, establishes a citizen board weighted in favor of those communities that receive the greatest amount of enforcement action in order to ensure that those who are most policed have a voice in the development of goals that are ultimately about them.

In Crimes and Punishments: In the 21st Century, Wood lays out a number of the principles that underlie his approach to police organization, principles which generally hew closely to extant research about human psychology, and reject classical assumptions about human rationality and free will.

In that classical paradigm, human beings are endowed with a faculty known as reason, whether by God or by Nature, and this faculty allows them to distinguish and choose between good and evil, right and wrong. But as Wood points out in the introduction to this essay, the human being operates within a matrix of social constructions, not rationally sourced conclusions (what we have classically referred to as ‘truth’).

On Crimes and Punishments: In the 21st Century attempts to centralize this postmodern insight about humans in our approach to the problem of law. Thus, rather than think about law as a set of rules based on true, rational conclusions about humanity and the world, Wood challenges us to think about law as a tool for enabling the joint construction of that system in which all humans operate: society. Put another way, law is here treated as a tool for enabling human cooperation, not protecting against violations of natural or civil right, which has often had the consequence of rendering law, and especially criminal law, a purely punitive exercise.

The work takes its title, and its lead, from Cesare Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishment, an Enlightenment-era essay that influenced the evolution of criminal law in our own American context, rejecting some aspects of Beccaria’s thought while embracing others, particularly Beccaria’s prescription that laws which unnecessarily limit human freedom are also tyrannical.

If human beings are defined by the cooperation that is the foundation of society, then how should we think about law, and how should we treat those whose actions inhibit our shared approach to society? We know punishment does not deter crime, nor does it produce greater commitment to shared social systems, but rather often makes participation in such systems even more difficult for the ‘offender.’ Wood challenges us to let go of any social demand for punishment, recognizing that this demand undermines the goal of society itself, and instead asks us to look skeptically at our social contract, rather than reverently. If our social contract is an object of suspicion, then we ought to be more willing to alter its features as its limitations come to the fore, rather than reflexively defend aspects that hinder cooperation on the basis that they are ‘right’ or ‘true;’ or worse, that we are ‘right’ and know the ‘truth.’

At the heart of Wood’s Civilian-Led Policing model rests the idea that citizen guidance of policing ensures greater flexibility with respect to our conclusions about what is just and lawful, since the persons cooperatively determining the goals and desired outcomes of policing are themselves the ones whose actions are being regulated thereby. Crimes and Punishments: In the 21st Century is an invitation to reorient oneself vis-a-vis the notion of law in order to think about how laws impact us as ‘human beings,’ and how, therefore, they might be better harnessed in the direction of encouraging what for Wood is our most defining human feature: cooperation.

By Roberto E. Alejandro, Ph.D., JD

Crimes & Punishments: In the 21st Century is available now in Paperback, Kindle, eBook, Audible, audio-books, Barnes & Noble, Apple, Spotify & more.

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Michael Wood Jr. is a police management scholar who after spending a career in the USMC and Baltimore Police Department, took to dismantling the blue wall of silence and creating the pathway to reform; a model called Civilian-Led Policing. His fight for justice has included leading the historic Veterans for Standing Rock action in December of 2016, listening to the front lines of Black Lives Matter, opposing money in politics, and elevating the voices of others. You can find Michael in hundreds of media appearances, from HBO’s Fixing the System documentary with President Obama, to The Joe Rogan Experience, to published opinion pieces in The Guardian and Baltimore Sun, and everything in-between, where he furthers the discussion on criminal justice systems and institutions, and the needs of society.

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