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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 11/13/10

Unitive Justice: The Real "Get Tough on Crime"

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In the political debate that has one politician claiming to be tougher on crime than the next, there is an underlying theme: anyone who is not tough on crime is soft on crime. When the voters are convinced that crime is what they should fear the most, being soft on crime becomes political suicide. The fact the tough on crime approach is a failed policy that wastes money and lives gets lost in the shuffle.

Recently, when I was working for the passage of a restorative justice bill, this political landscape was apparent. As we approached some legislators to ask if they would co-patron the bill, they objected on the grounds restorative justice was soft on crime; a type of justice that was sort of squishy. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Restorative justice is one model of unitive justice, but whatever the particular application, unitive justice is not squishy, as some have been led to believe. Unitive justice does not condone or ignore wrongdoing. It is not a world of relative values or slack morals where anything goes.

On the contrary, unitive justice reduces or eliminates wrongdoing by creating and maintaining a culture in which wrongdoing by anyone is not accepted behavior. How is this achieved? It is the result of applying one moral standard to everyone. In our dualistic world in which dual morality is the norm, it is sometimes hard to imagine what one moral standard would look like.

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One of my favorite examples of what it means to an institution to have one moral standard that applies to everyone is what happened in a Virginia prison. In the culture the warden had established and carefully tended, everyone was to respect everyone else, with no exceptions. For example, the cells of inmates were seen as the inmates' homes, and were to be treated with the respect a person's home deserved. When the officers inspected those cells, the inspections were to achieve their legitimate goal, not be used to violate the inmates' sense of security and self respect that the warden was trying to instill.

On one occasion when the cells of all of the inmates were being inspected for contraband, one of the guards ransacked some of the inmates' cells. As a result, the guard was reprimanded. Everyone was to respect everyone else, and this included the guards respecting the inmates. How different that is from what usually happens in our prisons!

What was the result of one moral standard as an institutional norm? Misconduct among inmates in this particular prison was a rare occurrence. Being held to a common moral standard that applied to and benefited everyone motivated members of the community to measure up, norming to the organizing principles of the environment they were living in. One moral standard meant everyone in the institutions, the warden, the officers and the inmates, were all safer.

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It is the double moral standard that underpins punitive justice that is squishy. This dual morality permits us to project blame for our killing, for example, on those whom we kill, saying they are responsible for our harm because they are evil and deserve to die. We, in essence, project blame for our premeditated acts on those whom we harm, so we can claim that our harm is moral because we are not responsible for it. This dualistic thinking is hypocritical, yet it is so common, we rarely question it.

The vengeance model of justice is actually a process that leads toward greater disorder, not the restoration of order. While unitive justice can take some time to implement, punishment and revenge make the time it takes to restore harmony and balance even longer.

Unitive justice is pragmatic and predictable. If an environment is created in which shared community values do not sanction hurting one another--and this standard is applied to everyone--the need to use punishment to deter violence and to maintain order and control quickly diminishes.

If we want to live in a safe world, we must see that everyone else is safe. No exceptions.

Posted on on 9-1-10.


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