Time to change the philosophy of justice here

Wiley A. Hall 3rd

September 08, 1992|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

There was good news and bad news last week following the report that on any given day well over half of the city's young black men are either in jail, in court, on parole or being sought by police.

The heartening aspect of this dismal finding was that the city's fathers proved themselves to be intelligent and sensitive men.

They didn't deny the findings, they didn't quibble over numbers, they didn't rage about some conspiracy to make them look bad. Instead, the mayor, the chief of police and the city state's attorney joined in our lamentations.

The bad news, though, is that tears aren't good enough.

The study by the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives showed very clearly that we've got to change the way we do business because a system that treats more than half of the citizenry as either criminals or potential criminals clearly is not working.

Such is the case here and in most urban centers.

Tens of thousands of young men and women are arrested, tried, convicted, sentenced and incarcerated each year, yet we, the public, have virtually nothing to show for it. People do not feel protected. Victims do not feel satisfied. Defendants do not feel they have been tried and sentenced fairly.

Inevitably, a criminal justice system such as ours loses its credibility, its moral authority. It comes to be seen, by criminal and victim alike, as arbitrary and cruel, as though it were imposed upon the city by some distant, hostile, colonial power.

To their credit, the men in charge here acknowledged all of this. But at the same time, they put the responsibility for change on state and federal authorities and how those officials direct their resources.

But let us be honest: The lords of Washington and Annapolis are not going to change their attitudes any time soon. The hatemongers are in charge. They are venomous and ignorant, and they stay in office by playing upon the ignorance and venom of their constituents.

So, if the city fathers really feel we should change the way we conduct business, if they truly lament the mindless arrest and incarceration of a huge proportion of their population, then they simply will have to stop making mindless arrests.

The current move to community policing is a first, tentative step in this direction. The idea is to get more police officers closer to the communities they serve -- through increased foot patrols and a network of police substations -- to focus more on preventing crime than reacting to it.

A spokesman for the mayor insists this effort will go forward with or without state and federal funding support. "We are talking about a change in our philosophy of police work," says Clint Coleman.

The next step is to change our philosophy of what happens after a crime has been committed and an arrest has been made.

The mayor and the police chief, the prosecutor and the judges should unilaterally declare that from now on, the city will emulate the justice dispensed in civilized nations such as most of Western Europe, Canada, and Japan, where the focus is on compelling the criminal to make personal restitution to his victim. Alcoholics and drug addicts are given treatment. Dropouts are returned to school. Neighborhood disputes are resolved through community arbitrators.

All of these are approaches that were tried here on an experimental basis by the comparatively moderate governments of Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter. The pilot programs proved to be tremendously successful, even when applied to repeat offenders.

But the hatemongers took over in Washington and unilaterally declared that approaches that worked in Europe and Canada would not work here on (as they euphemistically put it) non-Europeans.

This, then, is the mission for city officials: Call a unilateral halt to the current rage for revenge. Just say "no" to the hatemongers. Change the philosophy of justice here.

If federal funding is available to do this, fine. If not, find a way to do it without money.

The people of this city deserve a criminal justice system that is part of the cure, not part of the problem. No more business as usual.

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