Vengeance or Injustice: Which Problem is Real?

From Nicholas Kristof, in Friday’s New York Times:

[W]hile we have breakthrough DNA technologies to find culprits and exculpate innocent suspects, we aren’t using them properly — and those who work in this field believe the reason is an underlying doubt about the seriousness of some rape cases. In short, this isn’t justice; it’s indifference.

Solomon Moore, a colleague of mine at The Times, last year wrote about a 43-year-old legal secretary who was raped repeatedly in her home in Los Angeles as her son slept in another room. The attacker forced the woman to clean herself in an attempt to destroy the evidence.

Tim Marcia, the detective on the case, thought this meant that the perpetrator was a habitual offender who would strike again. Mr. Marcia rushed the rape kit to the crime lab but was told to expect a delay of more than one year.

Kristof’s column underscores a point I’m trying to make with this blog: while many journalists, politicians and activists endlessly complain that our criminal justice system is too harsh, too punitive, and too prone to incarcerate, the reality of crime in America is that the vast majority of criminals get away with virtually all of the crimes they commit and serve very little time for the rest of them. Our standards have become reflexively anti-punitive — the word “standards” hardly fits anymore.

Consequently, we don’t seem to have any problem telling victims that they will have to accept being denied justice. But the moment a victim speaks out — complains, criticizes, vents, or even observes that injustice has been visited upon them — suddenly, their words — mere language — constitute a severe threat to public safety.

Pundits who empathize with the most depraved offenders howl with outrage the moment a victim expresses even mild dissatisfaction with the outcome of a court case. Activists who eagerly search the faces of child killers for glimmers of goodness are the ones most likely to peer into the wounded eyes of a victim and feel a frisson of disgust that vengeance — vengeance — might lurk there. People who advocate lenience for the perpetrators of horrific crimes are the first ones to advocate vigilance in slapping down victims who get too uppity in their demands for recourse and legal rights.

If we policed the streets the way we police victims’ feelings, we wouldn’t have victims of crime in the first place.

I have experienced this troubling conundrum first-hand. Years after I encountered my rapist and learned his potential for sadism, I was astonished to learn that alumni from my college were still trying to get him released from his life sentence for another rape — not because they think he is innocent, and not because he raped me in particular, but just because he exists and is in prison, which automatically qualifies him for empathy. This man has no connection to the small college I attended; he merely lived nearby and brutalized elderly women in Sarasota, where the school is located, and so, in spasms of righteousness, he has become a cause.

Meanwhile, I cannot count the times I have been accused of:

  • wanting to kill or otherwise punish those accused of crime without a trial
  • wanting to put innocent men in prison
  • wanting to lock up children for life upon their first offense
  • subscribing to fascist ideology
  • lacking human feeling

merely because I am a crime victim, advocating for enforcing the law. My sins, as you can see, are many.

Tomorrow: The “Benjy Brigade”: Boston’s Finest Mount an Attack on an Elderly Victim of Rape

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2 thoughts on “Vengeance or Injustice: Which Problem is Real?”

  1. This is part of a larger issue dealing with the ongoing rampant neglect and abuses of the treatment of rape kits and I thought you’d be interested in some updates. This from MoJo, but it’s now being widely reported elsewhere by the news media. Gov. Sarah Palin was also caught up in a similar controversy that was never quite resolved or brought up during the late Prez campaign. That was seemingly a strictly ideological preference, and a consistent one too.

    http://www.motherjones.com/blue-marble/2009/05/friday-edition-you-gotta-be-kidding-me-beat

    Stumbled into here awhile back looking for something else. Interesting stuff as usual. Had no idea about ‘Benjy’ either, but I was horrified to hear of Silber’s convoluted moral reasoning behind his seemingly unqualified support. This from a man who made a reputation as a RW moralist & studied & taught moral philosophy @ BU. The USSC has also had some recent rulings that touch upon the topic, presenting a very high standard of proof before anyone is ever judged ‘innocent’ if ever once duly convicted. But I’m not a lawyer here.

    The recapitulation of classical themes on punishment will always be with us. Unfortunately we’ve got a less educated audience (everywhere) to try and cope with it all. And yes, you’re about the only one I know who still recalls old Milty Eisenhower too. Good stuff. Good Luck, JP, ga

  2. The rape kit situation in Texas is chilling — every few months, somewhere, it is revealed that women are being charged to have evidence collected from their bodies or that piles of un-tested rape kits have been found. Such revelations are followed by public announcements that the situation will be resolved — then it happens again.

    Contrast this lack of public will in dealing fairly with victims to the baroque system of appeals that afford every defendant every opportunity to challenge their conviction, or conditions in incarceration, or anything else they can dream up. They don’t necessarily get a day in court, but all of their complaints must be dealt with. Entire courthouse staffs are dedicated to processing the most inane claims. The same county court that failed to test my rape kit and refused me a day in court spent many thousands listening to vague complaints from my rapist — including demands that the county reimburse him for impounding his car and a demand that they “return” his fingerprint to him. That was apparently important to consider, while there were no resources available to try my case.

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