Arguing against retributive justice 4 drug crimes
I wrote a paper for my English class arguing against retribution as the proper idea for crimes involving drug possession/trafficking and I figured I’d put it on my profile as a journal entry.
For as long as I can remember, retribution has been an aspect of my life as natural and necessary as eating and sleeping. One of my earliest memories when I was around 4 years old is of getting hit by another kid in the neighborhood and running home, not knowing what to do. I remember my family encouraging me to “get even.” Sure enough, I marched right back to that kid around the corner and gave him a taste of his own medicine. He immediately started crying, causing me to panic and run home. When I got there and told what I did, I was met with many cheers and validation. As time went on, this principle of retribution ingrained itself in my thought process. Even the smallest perceived slight from anyone required me to avenge it somehow. It was very exhausting, both mentally and emotionally. Even when I knew taking revenge could put me in a worse position, I believed it was necessary. After all, justice had to be served. It was not until these past few years that something profound happened to me. After being incarcerated for narcotics trafficking and firearm possession, I spent a lot of my time reading and reflecting. As I read more about the principles of compassion and forgiveness from men such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela, I began to perceive ever so slightly that there may be a better way to live. It wasn’t until I began to practice these principles that it became obvious to me that, although more difficult and time-consuming, they were much more in harmony with true reality. A vengeful attitude in the individual is not pro-social. I know from personal experience that it only leads to more harm, isolation and self-destruction. If this is true at the micro level, could it also be true at the macro level? Our current retributive model of criminal justice is a perfect example of vengeance at work on a large scale. An examination of this system and the principles it is based on will show that the current paradigm of retribution in many cases, particularly drug cases, is illogical, ineffective, and could be dangerous and self-destructive for society. While there are obvious cases where the current retributive paradigms are necessary, such as in cases of extreme violence and large-scale crimes, a large majority of them are cases in which retribution is hard to justify.
First I would like to share an experience I had during my second year of incarceration when I ended up sharing a cell with a kid who’s story I learned a lot from. He was 24 years old, an addict, a gang member, and a father. He was brough into this world already fighting an addiction to crack cocaine. His mother was a severe addict with major health problems and his father left before he was born. He grew up being shown a toxic and broken love, if one can even call it that, from the only ones around him. His only male role models were two uncles in their forties who were failed gang members and that still lived at home with their mother, his grandmother. He grew up filled with sever anxiety and restlessness, a physiological response to the damage done by the drugs running through his veins when he was born. He ended up hyper-vigilant and emotionally shut off, a reasonable reaction of the developing human psyche to an environment in which the main caregivers cannot even care for themselves. In his teenage years, his mom ingested impure methamphetamine, had a temporary psychotic episode and was hospitalized for two weeks. This teenager was powerless to stop his mother from using so he began selling to her in an attempt to make sure she would have “safe” doses. He didn’t want to lose her again, this time maybe permanently. Eventually, he began using her. This was a teen’s desperate and misguided attempt to bond with his only caregiver. He is currently serving 8 years for trafficking the same drug that he and his mother had struggled with since his early teen years. Sadly, many of the drug offenders I’ve met in prison share similar stories. Stories that show the infinite complexity and immense sorrow behind the realities of drug addiction, possession, and trafficking. Now let’s examine the concept of retribution in our criminal justice system using his story as an example.
In a recent journal article about retributive justice and its social context, the author N. Vidmar, a legal scholar, proposes a six-stage model of the social psychological dynamics of retribution that our criminal justice system is based on. One of those concepts is that “the rule violator’s intention is perceived as blameworthy [by society]” (1). The word blame sticks out to me. Was it my old cellmate’s “fault” that he started to use and distribute drugs when he was in his young teen years? Was it his sole intention to break the law when he found himself addicted to methamphetamine and securing safe doses for his mother? Is he “blameworthy”? When do individual will and personal responsibility become overwhelmed by extraordinarily oppressive circumstances? Vidmar also states that “field studies of criminal cases provide evidence that retributive responses to criminal events are socially derived” (8). Are these retributive responses just when many of the circumstances leading to drug crimes such as these are also, at least partially, socially derived? The life of my old cellmate is an example of a social symptom of a larger societal problem. Is retribution the correct principle to apply to him or his situation?
In another legal article published in Law and Human Behavior, M. Wenzel et al claim that “for retributive justice, the punishment per se, or the suffering and humiliation it implies for the offender, restores the justice” (4). Does society need to impose more suffering and humiliation when the natural consequences of one’s mere existence already supply an overwhelming amount of both? For a society to seek revenge on an individual and perceive that the suffering they experience restores anything when that individual is largely a product of the circumstances the society provided for him in the first place seems irresponsible and immature. Especially with certain drug cases where the social factors seem so difficult to overcome. Revenge as a form of restoring community values and “justice” against someone who is desperately trying to cope with the sad realities of their lives by using drugs and subjecting themselves to being a part of the unglamorous and shameful drug counterculture seems unethical and simply improper. Would it not make more sense that society seek to heal itself, rather than take revenge on itself?
Instead of perpetuating a belief in revenge, it should be the responsibility of our social institutions to act on more harmonious principles such as forgiveness and compassion when it is appropriate. If society takes a small amount of responsibility when it comes to drug crimes, then maybe the paradigm of retribution can be replaced by forgiveness and healing. Society cannot endanger itself by forgiving offenders because forgiveness does not release an offender from punishment. It just changes the types of punishment. The point is not to completely stop prosecuting drug crimes. The point is for society and those who represent it to change the manner in which they punish these crimes, from feeling the need to avenge (draconian sentences, mandatory minimums, absence of parole), to instead having the desire to heal.
Clearly, we as a society must consider the possibility that blame and retribution are principles that are ineffective and incongruous with the reality of the circumstances behind many drug crimes. Thinking back to the example of my old cellmate, could it be that the sadness of his life is sufficient punishment, so that we don’t have to feel the need to extract more suffering in an attempt to balance the scales of justice when it comes to drug crimes? Is it possible that education, hope, opportunity, and the learning of responsibility could serve him and society as a whole much better than paying forty thousand a year to keep him locked up and not having any way to earn his redemption? Could there be things we could spend that money on that are more productive than warehousing him with thousands of other emotionally dysregulated and unstable individuals without any proper guidance? If we answer these questions through the paradigm of retribution, then we are led right back to the ineffective system we just examined. In order to answer these questions effectively we must look at things not through the lens of retribution, but through the principles of compassion and forgiveness. These are concepts that can begin the transformation of our criminal justice system from having an ineffective and probably unethical retributive paradigm to one that serves the offenders, victims, and society better through the manifestation of truer and more ethical principles.