Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The culture of crime

I sat in court this morning and watched a judge berate a father for spanking his 8-year-old kid with a belt.  The judge said, "I would never, ever consider hitting my child with a belt."  The father said back to the judge, "I'm trying to make my child into a good man, so he's not pulling up to a drive-through restaurant with a gun in his hand, asking for all the cash."
One of the most difficult things for me to deal with as a criminal defense attorney is the lack of cultural understanding within the system.  There are lots of reasons that our system is unjust, but this is one that is really hard for me.

The law is written by the representatives of the majority.  These are people who have to weigh was is good, what is bad, and how to govern society as a whole.  This is necessary and important work.  But the world that I'm from is a minority world.  The urban culture is a whole different culture, where survival is dependent on presenting an invincible image, where my safety depends on whether you're more afraid of me than I am of you.  The urban culture does not mesh well with the majority culture.  On so many levels, what is required of an urban person for survival is against the law.

Setting aside questions of morality (like whose culture is morally correct), this creates a situation where my clients can never win.  They will not survive their home life or their neighborhood walks without acting in one way.  But acting in that way sets them at odds with the law.  As a result, they face the attendant financial and social penalties that further separate them from the majority culture.

Going back to the father in my story, I wouldn't be surprised if the father is right, that the only way he can prevent his son from going criminal is to physically discipline his child.  In his culture, this is the only way to communicate discipline.  Is it ideal?  No.  Is it causing the child damage?  Maybe--I don't know because I wasn't there.  But the father's reaction may be the lesser of many evils that are possible.  I don't advocate for situational ethics.  But I do wish that there was some way that the father's perspective could be legitimized.  He has very real fears and concerns that society is not helping him to solve in a socially acceptable way.  So he's left with a domestic violence charge on his record, hundreds of dollars of court costs that he's unable to pay, and a criminal record for violence.

Is this really justice?  I understand the need for rules and laws that govern societal behavior.  I understand the desire to protect children from abuse.  In fact, I'm a huge advocate for that in many arenas of my life.  But I do want to cry out against the perception that just because this is what the majority has deemed correct, the people who choose to do otherwise for their own good reasons are somehow different than "us".  He's just the same as everyone else.  Many times criminal behavior does not indicate that someone is a reprehensible or morally stunted person.

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