I Care About People Not Policy
Illegality isn’t a strong enough argument in the face of wreckless over-policing.
I am notorious for paying poor attention to my surroundings. I always say that if someone is in peril of being followed out of a store, it’s me. I spend the majority of my time in my own head and I’m pretty aware of that, so when a moment from my childhood sticks I know it’s for a reason.
I vividly remember a conversation I had with my dad when I was around 10 years old. We somehow got on the subject of stealing and I argued that a man is morally justified in stealing bread if it is to feed his family. Obviously, I didn’t use this exact verbiage, because 10, but I knew stealing is wrong and I’ve always been deeply empathetic. After all, I had seen Aladdin at that point so it’s not like I was totally in the dark on the societal gray areas surrounding poverty or privilege.
My dad disagreed. He argued that thievery is thievery regardless of the intent behind the action. While one would expect this 10-year-old world view to dissipate over the last 13 years, my core belief has stayed the same.
What has changed is my understanding of the dilemma. We view the issue as having two actors: civil society and the offender. The reality is that there are three: civil society, the offender, and the entity enforcing laws designed to keep people at the bottom.
I understand the rule of law approach to issues of legality versus morality. I know that in order for civil society to function, there has to be strict enforcement of an agreed upon code of conduct to prevent chaos. I know this, but that doesn’t make it a good enough argument to justify mass incarceration and keeping people with little money or prospects in the same vicious cycle.
With criminal justice reform finally making its much-needed debut into the mainstream (thanks Kim K), I think a large fraction of that discussion ought to be centered around the question, “Is this really necessary?”
Is this really necessary?
Adding teenagers to the national sex offender registry for sending nudes. Making people spend 320 hours of their valuable time and at least $50 to legally apply fake eyelashes on other people in the state of Texas. The use of excessive force by police on Black individuals and families. Criminalizing sex work. Keeping medicinal marijuana illegal. Training hospital staff to handle ICE raids or being a model-citizen worried about deportation over a decades-old, juvenile misdemeanor.
Often times those that view the world with a rule-of-law filter get so bogged down in enforcing the rules that they do not take a moment to step back and ask themselves if the rule is even necessary, to begin with. While enforcement is important to civil society, it is impossible to claim we live in a free society when our laws are only just to a select few.
Whether it’s unnecessary overregulation or imposing our own sense of morality on others, we need to be careful of what we deem integral to a well-functioning society. I hate slippery slope arguments, so don’t worry this isn’t one. A brief glimpse at the status quo — even just the examples listed two paragraphs above — tells us that it’s very easy to over-police in the name of societal welfare.
What we instead have is the exact opposite of order and freedom. When over-regulation and excessive rule of law are the norm, these burdens keep low-income families at the bottom and lead to higher crime rates. It’s no coincidence that we have an empirically proven societal correlation between income inequality and violent crime. The inverse is also the case. Those with lower incomes are 3x’s more likely to be the victim of violent crimes such as rape and assault, according to the Brookings Institute.
There is interconnectivity in all facets of society. Like maybe when judging someone for stealing bread to feed their family — are they criminals or just desperate parents? Should this distinction matter? While there are many other external factors to be explored, it is difficult to argue that police brutality or systematic poverty imposed through state licensing procedures have no impact on incarceration rates.
People matter more than policy. Freedom matters more than your perception of morality.
So, where do we go from here? While I will never claim to have all of the answers, I do believe a criminal justice system that focuses on people over legislation would have exponential economic as well as societal benefits.
Obviously, this isn’t some anarchistic framework that allows everyone to do as they please in the name of individualism. Rather, it’s a call to reevaluate existing laws and regulations through the lens of being absolutely necessary to the fabric of society. This is broad and subjective, so let’s be specific.
The reality is that “necessary” has always been subjective. In philosophy, logicians always refer to “necessary and sufficient conditions.” Philosophers have come to the conclusion that there can be no true definition of necessary as it is a highly contextual term. That’s fine. We already know the context that we want to operate under.
If the goal is to create a just society that maintains order while maximizing freedom, then all regulation and legislation ought to be run through that framework.
Even if it offends your sensibilities, it is not necessary to put teenagers consensually sending nude photos on the national sex offender registry or to charge them of soliciting child pornography.
It is not necessary to always require an occupational license — eating up an average of 341 days and $253 in fees — to work. Nor is it necessary to take that license away when defaulting on student loan payments (How do you expect them to make the payment without your arbitrary license?). We cannot tell individuals to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps” then threaten them with jail time if they don’t comply with burdensome government bureaucracy.
“How will we know if someone’s qualified to work?” The same way you trust vendors at farmers markets without health department inspection. The same way you let your neighbor help you with a computer problem without an IT degree. Through word of mouth, proven experience, and client testimonial. All components that don’t need government regulation to be proved. What’s more, you know that poorly rated nail salon that everyone is warned to stay away from in your home town? Yeah, they have licenses and they’re still not trustworthy.
It is not necessary to use excessive police force when confronting an unarmed civilian. It is not necessary to shoot first and ask questions later. Being “disrespectful” to a police officer doesn’t warrant being shot.
Ultimately, when leading in criminal justice discussions, this seemingly simple question has the potential to act as a gatekeeper between freedom and incarceration.