Act Justly

In my last post I talked a little bit about the kind of justice that Judge Dredd most concerns himself with.  What I said there is that Dredd seems invested primarily in a retributive model of justice: commit a crime and pay the penalty.  It’s not an ideal system, because it’s reactionary.  Crimes occur and the Judges only have the power to enforce sentencing after the fact.  We can get into discussions of the purpose of punishment in a justice system like this one, though as I try to think about the rationales for punishment my head starts to hurt.

Consider the rationale I think of as the equity model.  If a person commits a crime, then they’ve wronged someone; they’ve done measurable harm to their victim, and the equitable response is to make the criminal pay restitution, to undo the harm.  I like this idea because it’s founded on making amends.  In a sense, it enables reconciliation.  Of course, the scope of this model is limited, because there is a class of crimes that do permanent harm to the victim for which no amount of restitution can make things as they were.  At this point we can still use equity as a starting point for the administration of justice, but the concept shifts from making things right for the victim towards (ideally) enforcing empathy in the criminal by making them partake in the damage of the crime through an equivalent punishment.  Because time’s a limited resource that can’t be recovered, it logically follows that punishments which impinge on a person’s time make a good substitute for sharing the victim’s suffering with the criminal.  We don’t have to inflict the same wrong on the criminal in order to make things equitable between them and the victim, but we can still take something of equivalent value from them.

Naturally, things start to get complicated when you try to determine equivalencies between amounts of time and various injuries, especially if you’re keeping justice in mind where you only want to restore equity.  Imposing a punishment that is overly harsh exceeds justice and moves into the territory of revenge.  Conversely, imposing a punishment that’s too lenient falls short of this justice model and invokes mercy.  Neither scenario is equitable.

Beyond the class of crimes that are irreparable, things become more heinous.  Perhaps at the extreme end, we could consider criminals who have committed multiple murders.  The equity model tends to break down at this point, because once you’ve taken more than one human life, you’ve exceeded the limits of equity.  We each only get one life, and while execution may be a fair punishment for someone who deliberately kills one person, in simple mathematical terms it can’t balance for any additional lives taken.

I think it’s at this point that the equity model tends to break down because we’ve reached the limits of merely balancing wrongs.

A second model of justice that helps supplement equity is the idea of deterrence.  In deterrent justice, the purpose of punishment isn’t so much to maintain equity between parties but to discourage crime by making the penalties too costly.  How you go about figuring out what kind of penalties are too costly for various crimes while still being equitable is tricky business, and not something I want to get into too much here.  One major intent of deterrence as a justice model is to promote a fair society proactively.  It’s still punitive in nature, but the penalties stand as a warning against harming your neighbors.

The problem with these models of justice is that they deal pretty much exclusively with breaches of the social order.  They offer nothing in the way of making things better for society.  That’s the underlying assumption in Dredd too, that society has crumbled and the Judges exist only to maintain a barely present sense of order.  They offer nothing in the way of hope or positive change.

That calls for a different model of justice.


One thought on “Act Justly

  1. Pingback: Love Mercy | Catchy Title Goes Here

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