17 August 2011

Intolerant Justice. The London Riots Part Three

part one     part two   

If we think back just a month, the most common phrase coming from the lips of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom was "second chance."

"...but I believe in giving people a second chance..."
"I decided to give him a second chance," David Cameron said about his former close advisor and press officer Andy Coulson on July 8, 2011, explaining his judicial philosophy, "with a single, often repeated phrase" (in the words of the Guardian).

Wanted? Looting of £7,000 from House of
Commons expenses fund. You might look for
him around No. 10 Downing Street.
And there is no reason to doubt the Prime Minister's sincerity. He himself had chosen to give himself "a second chance" rather than resigning when he was caught pocketing £20,000 he had no right to take in the "expenses scandal" of 2009 (as a young man Mr. Cameron escaped punishment for smashing a shop window... apparently no one drove a truck around with his photos on it... so this might be Cameron's "third chance"). And in Cameron's cabinet, his Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove is in his "second chance" after taking £7,000 he was not entitled to, and Jeremy Hunt, the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media, and Sport, also in his "second chance" after stealing £22,000 and then agreeing to give back half of that.

Even Cameron's favourite cop, Bill Bratton, late of the LAPD, is on - at least - his "second chance," having resigned after just two years as New York's Police Commissioner in 1996 for accepting outside income, and trips and gifts from corporations, which public employees are not permitted to accept. (This makes him perfect, in many ways, for this Tory cabinet.)

But, oh, times change... or maybe, lawbreakers get less wealthy and even less white, and just 36 days letter, in an interview with the Telegraph, Mr. Cameron sounds quite different:
"He pledges to support “zero tolerance” — a tough system of policing first popularised in the US which sees even minor offences prosecuted vigorously to send out the message that no form of law-breaking will be tolerated.
'“I will be saying much more about that because I think it is true,” Mr Cameron says. “We haven’t talked the language of zero tolerance enough but the message is getting through."' 
"Zero Tolerance." It is truly hard to imagine that any reasonably raised human would utter this phrase when not speaking of, say, rape, murder, child molestation - behaviors of that kind of extreme immorality. And yet, it has been a favorite term, this month, of the British Prime Minister, and over a lot of years, that ex-Los Angeles Police Chief, ex-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and way too many school administrators. Which is odd, because we are supposed to be tolerant societies.

"Constitutionally," in quotes because it is notoriously tough to pin down British constitutional law, the Anglo world believes in tolerant justice. Courtrooms have been filled, forever, with "guilty with an explanation," "affirmative defenses," "jury nullification," and people set free because of government/police misconduct in criminal investigations and prosecutions. We often let juries pick between higher and lesser charges, say, burglary and trespassing, or murder and manslaughter. And there is a centuries long tradition of judges sentencing those convicted based on a whole range of information about the defendant, the crime, the victims, the circumstances.

We developed these strategies because almost nothing about human behavior is 'black and white.' It makes a difference if you murder your abusive husband or kill your spouse for money. It makes a difference if you bring a knife to school because you are terrified, or if you bring a knife to school to terrify others.

Yet, this week, the Prime Minister continues to see intolerant justice as the model. "David Cameron," noted the Guardian, "who last week promised severe punishments for rioters, saying he hoped courts would use "exemplary" sentences to deter future riots, praised the sentencing decisions, which have included two jailed for four years each for inciting riots on Facebook – riots that never took place – and one person sent to prison for six months for stealing £3.50 worth of water. Asked about the Facebook case, the prime minister said: "They decided in that court to send a tough message and I think it's very good that courts are able to do that."'

And this echoes the pathetic "we're too stupid to make rational decisions" arguments from right-wing think tanks a decade ago. "More zero-tolerance policies run amok?" asked Manhattan Institute scholar Kay S. Hymowitz in 2001, when many schools were rushing to adopt "zero tolerance discipline," "It doesn't seem like it. Jeanne Milstein, child advocate for the State of Connecticut, says that her office had received many reports about "out of control" tots hitting, biting and throwing things in inner-city and suburban schools. Though there's little solid data, Kristie Kauerz, an official at the Education Commission of the States, claims that there's enough anecdotal evidence to conclude that a growing number of unmanageable babes is now a nationwide trend. In the end, zero tolerance may be more symptom than cure for the uneasy disciplinary climate of our schools. Certainly it's no final answer to out-of-control 5-year-olds or revenge-crazed teenagers. But as the threats continue and the bombs and guns appear, it's all we've got."

"Anecdotal evidence," "out-of-control 5-year-olds," "revenge-crazed teenagers," "slow-motion moral collapse," "Children without fathers. Schools without discipline. Reward without effort. Crime without punishment. Rights without responsibilities. Communities without control." It sure does sound might dangerous out there. If we don't have "zero tolerance" "the bombs and [the] guns appear," or the riots will come to your street next.

But, of course, here is the problem. "Zero Tolerance" does not work. Policing based on it does not work. Schools which use it as a discipline system do not solve their problems. If you enter '"Zero Tolerance" education" into Google Scholar you will find scores of pages of studies detailing these facts. If you dig into Bill Bratton's short tenure at the NYPD you will probably find that the introduction of more than 5,000 extra police officers - paid for by the Clinton Administration - during Bratton's tenure (plus another 5,000 additional cops in the next three years), and an improving New York City economy, surely had more impact on crime rates than the Giuliani/Bratton system of arresting black kids for loitering and violating their constitutional rights with illegal searches.

What intolerant justice does is teach people that there is no justice at all. Students learn that justice systems are unfair and cannot be trusted. Their own schools teach them that government and those in power aren't smart enough to figure things out logically.

What intolerant justice does is teach those at the bottom of society's hierarchy that they have no stake in that society, that they are not apart of it in any way. You think people didn't respect the British government and its traditions back in July? Wait till they see the way this kid was treated for steal a £3.50 case of water while Cameron's friend Andy Coulson got his "second chance."

One of our jobs, in education or in political leadership, is to bring people in, to let them understand why it benefits all of us if they join our society, if they share our community with us. "Zero Tolerance," intolerance, tells kids, tells everyone, just the opposite.

If anyone is sending that message, they should stop now.

- Ira Socol

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