An Object Lesson
For those of us who care about the fate of the American justice system, the past few days have been tough ones.
I wish I had something wise or original to say about the events in Texas, Louisiana, and Minnesota. But I don't. All I can do is echo the words of better writers than me.
Like Jelani Cobb:
"This week has become a grotesque object lesson in gun culture, one that points to a conclusion that we could have and should have drawn long ago—that the surfeit of weapons at our disposal and the corresponding fears that they induce create new hazards."
Or Adam Gopnik:
"By having a widely armed citizenry, we create a situation in which gun violence becomes a common occurrence, not the rarity it ought to be and is everywhere else in the civilized world. That this happened amid a general decline in violence throughout the Western world only serves to make the crisis more acute; America’s gun-violence problem remains the great and terrible outlier."
Or Barack Obama:
“Let's be clear: there’s no possible justification for these kinds of attacks, or any violence against law enforcement.”
Or John Feinblatt:
"We must change the laws and the culture that has led to our country having a gun murder rate that is 25 times that of other developed nations."
Like these and other commentators, I deplore the incidents in Dallas, Baton Rouge, and St. Paul. I grieve for those directly and indirectly affected by violence. And I pray that we as a society can change the dynamics that have led us to this point. This includes the easy availability of firearms. This includes inflammatory political rhetoric that encourages extremism. And this includes the steady drumbeat of tragic cases involving the use of force against people of color.
It is easy to draw a line connecting Alton Sterling and Philando Castile with Michael Brown and Freddie Gray and Eric Garner and so many other cases where it seems like our justice system has done the exact opposite of what it is intended to do. (And we shouldn't forget that over the years, there have been hundreds of less well-documented cases of bullying, harassment, and excessive force that have not gone viral. These victims are no less real just because they are unknown.)
I must confess that at moments like these I find myself struggling to keep at bay feelings of outrage, despair, and cynicism. To protect and serve? Courtesy, professionalism, and respect? Fair and equal treatment? These slogans can seem like cruel jokes when compared to the real-life workings of a justice system too often defined by brutality and bigotry.
But I have found that I cannot work effectively from a place of outrage, despair, and cynicism. Indeed, I have found that the only way to achieve positive change is by being positive.
And so, at the risk of sounding naive or out of step with the current moment, here are a few things that I feel positive about:
- The MacArthur Foundation has chosen to make a significant investment in reducing the use of jail around the country.
- Everytown for Gun Safety has developed into a consistent voice pushing back against gun violence across the country.
- Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr., with a big assist from the NYPD, is attempting to divert young people out of the justice system in New York City.
- Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City of New York have made real strides toward reducing the use of bail.
- Former New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman is devoting a big chunk of his time, energy and political capital to leading an independent commission that is asking whether it is possible to imagine a criminal justice system for New York City that does not rely on Rikers Island.
- Formerly-incarcerated individuals throughout New York City are choosing not just to decry the use of guns but to put themselves at risk to interrupt the cycle of violence.
- The U.S. Department of Justice, via the Bureau of Justice Assistance, is advancing the idea of procedural justice, which encourages justice system actors to treat individual defendants and victims with dignity and respect.
- New York State Chief Judge Janet DiFiore has launched an "excellence initiative" that, among other things, seeks to improve the speed that cases move through the system.
I think that all of these efforts seek to enhance the administration of justice, reduce potential sources of conflict, and make the world, however marginally, a better place. And all of these efforts disproportionately benefit people of color. (I'm also proud to say that the Center for Court Innovation is playing a supporting role in many of these initiatives.)
It is a cliche to quote Martin Luther King Jr., so I generally try to avoid it. But at low moments, I find myself drawn to one of the lines from the famous "How Long, Not Long" speech that he delivered fifty years ago in Montgomery, Alabama: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."
Despite the events of the past couple of days, I have faith that this is true. And that is why I work at the Center for Court Innovation.