345. Justice

Today I heard that the crime rate in a newly liberated country has risen since people have gotten more rights. It has raised an issue that we’re used to in the United States: aren’t those laws that protect everyone’s rights protecting the guilty as well as the innocent? (The mirror image of that question would be: When we oppress everyone, aren’t we oppressing the innocent as well as the guilty?) Unfortunately, we’re not perfect at figuring out who’s innocent and who’s guilty, nor how guilty the guilty are.
This is an issue for people who work with children. We have rules we expect children to follow. We try to keep down the number of rules, both so that children can follow them more easily and so that we can keep track of who’s following them and who isn’t. We try to be fair about enforcing our rules, protecting the innocent and holding the guilty responsible. But we’re no better than those who try to establish justice among adults, and so children do occasionally end up getting punished for some wrongs they didn’t commit, and not getting punished for some they did. People tend not to consider using capital punishment on children (“I’m gonna get killed for this,” spoken by a child, is seldom to be taken literally), but punishment is a real possibility.
If we lived in Utopia, there wouldn’t be any misdeeds. There wouldn’t even be any need for rules, because everyone – children and adults – would behave in
ways that would make rules unnecessary. They would all treat each other with respect, considering what effects their actions and words could have on each other, and making sure nobody got hurt or bothered. “Utopia” appropriately comes from the Greek for “nowhere,” but it does some good to keep in mind what we would like to happen.
Our system of justice is not utopian; it focuses on what goes wrong. It doesn’t take the approach some effective teachers take. Law enforcement officials don’t spend much time congratulating people for obeying laws. People don’t usually get pulled over and praised and/or rewarded for staying within the speed limit (although I recently heard that some communities are trying that approach). It’s assumed that most people will do what they’re supposed to do, and that the way to achieve justice is to catch and punish those who don’t.
Parents, teachers, and other adults try to prepare children to become good citizens. Children also prepare each other. They learn about freedom, individual rights, justice, and injustice, through planned lessons, unplanned lessons, and their own thoughts and experiences. Crimes, misdemeanors, and other annoying behavior happen, and we try to make them happen less. We really want them to stop happening altogether. But swift and sure punishment, which some people call the greatest deterrent to misbehavior, can be unrealistic, misguided, and ineffective, both for adults and for children. Prisons, capital punishment, detentions, and expulsions have been around for a long time, and haven’t solved the problem.

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