Thursday, April 12, 2012

Forget the hoodie, change the law

There is a great 2010 talk by Philip Howard about reforming criminal law. He says lawyers, judges and politicians need to know much better the science behind preventing social harm. He offers four steps for getting started.

Thinking about bus violence, an erratic sentence, and prevention science from my last blog, Ezzat Fattah came to mind.

Ezzat was one of my favorite grad school profs. Extensively published, fair-minded, and award-winning, he was a pioneer in victimology decades before restorative justice existed. He is respected around the world as a human rights advocate for Amnesty International.

In other words, one of the best!

And what do I recall one of the best saying regarding reforming criminal law? Contrary to some legal scholars' persistent belief in the myth of general deterrence, criminal law doesn't prevent much crime. Instead it is about punishment, morality and politics. No surprise, perhaps. Yet given decades of research into deterrence, this is disappointing because it turns out, for most violence, retribution and deterrence do not stop it!

If we were really serious about reducing social harm we would not rely on 3-strikes rules, mandatory sentencing, and tough-on-crime punishments to protect us. We'd tackle irrational sentencing, we would implement restorative justice, and we'd seriously consider anti-violence prevention programs like David Kennedy's Don't Shoot.

Kennedy says it outright: most gang-and-drug street violence isn't about money. It is about shame and loss of respect. It's about honor, which is why restorative methods work. That is how social harms will be cut.

Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law? An unarmed, hoodie-wearing teen was shot to death
last month while walking in a gated community by a neighborhood watch captain. 
Retributive justice has failed. The worst example is Florida's "Stand Your Ground" gun law. Did that law lead to gun-toting vigilantism in the shooting of Trayvon Martin last month? Was this a Neighborhood Watch program unravelling as an unarmed black kid in a hoodie is killed for the crime of walking in a gated community? A month after the shooting, following much speculation (and, no doubt, much politicking), they have now criminally charged Trayvon's shooter.

Gandhi said an eye-for-an-eye leaves the whole world blind. In Trayvon's case it might have left him dead.

2 Replies so far - Add your comment

  1. Greg, I just watched Philip Howard’s video. You were right, it was a very good video! Thanks. I would love to see something as far as a Canadian slant on that topic. I know our society is not as litigious as our neighbours to the South, but I think I would be naïve to think we weren’t that far off.

    As for teachers in the classroom, I have no doubt that is happening here as well.


  2. Thanks Duncan.

    Not sure if Canadian tort silliness is comparable. But I am sure Canadian's are just as afraid of it. Look how many police instructors are afraid of PBL training methods like journaling because they think they'll get sued (even though current training methods are the problem).

    Howard says these crazy tort cases are very rare (less than 2%) and I think he's right. The real problem is public fear. I was once told by a teacher she would not do CPR on a choking child for fear of getting sued if something went wrong.

    Law should be based on its effect on society, not individual situations. This is what Professor Fattah and others who specialize in the sociology of law have been saying for decades.


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