Debate always rages over what should be legalized, what should be banned, when police should or shouldn’t use violence, and who belongs in jail. We believe crime is a problem, and that we can solve problems by making them into crimes. But crime is a symptom. When a law is broken, it means something in society has gone deeply wrong.
Most legal systems, and the popular attitude surrounding the law, are little more than revenge fantasies. We punish people who disobey the law, not because it will fix whatever wrong they’ve committed, but because it feels like they deserve to suffer. We tell ourselves that the threat of punishment deters people from breaking the law, even without a shred of evidence to support this, let alone common sense. There are plenty of harmless behaviors that are illegal, and plenty of very harmful behaviors that are legal. There are lots of horrible things each and every one of us could do, every day. But we don’t, for a long list of reasons — and “because I could go to jail” is often very far down that list. For both people who abide by the law and people who break it, whether a legislative body approves of your actions is almost always a complete afterthought.
We tell ourselves that threats of punishment work, even though they rarely do, because we don’t want to face the fact that a broken law is a failure state. A bug in the system. An error message on the blue screen of society. If a law is so just, so moral, so representative of what a democratic society believes is “the right thing,” then why would anyone ever break it? Why would you have to enforce a good law?
When somebody breaks a law, it means one of two things:
- The law is unjust
- Something prevented this person from behaving properly
Those are the only two possibilities. There is no third option of “well, maybe some people are bad people,” and it’s time we called the belief that criminals aren’t created by their circumstances what it is: social science denial. If you believe that people rob stores because they have “poor moral character” or whatever, then your point of view is no more valuable than someone who thinks dinosaurs are a hoax or that the measles vaccine is ruining your indigo child’s crystal aura, and I’m not going to waste any more time refuting you.
There is nothing to celebrate when somebody is arrested, convicted, imprisoned, or even given a slap on the wrist and set free. For some reason — whether out of complacency, ignorance, or just plain delusion — most of society does not treat the work of law enforcement as the regrettable, preventable tragedy that it is. It’s easier to cope with when the solution is simply to repeal a dumb law, or to legalize something that never should have been banned in the first place. It’s harder when we have to accept the fact that somebody turned to something we all can agree is wrong — something like theft, murder, assault, libel, fraud — and they turned to this because doing the right thing wasn’t working.
Poverty, illness, toxic cultural norms, broken bureaucracy, fear, even traffic congestion — these are what drive people to do the wrong thing. We criminalize the behaviors that they cause and expect them to go away, but they don’t. We blame the people who break our laws because we don’t want to blame ourselves. We ought to be grieving every time a ticket is written, a handcuff is locked, a cell door swings shut, a gavel slams down to punctuate a sentence.
Instead, we create justice systems that incentivize and celebrate punishment, patting police and prosecutors on the back every time they nail somebody regardless of whether the world is better off because of it. From municipalities that excitedly raise revenue from parking tickets instead of fixing their parking problem, to district attorneys who proudly jail murderer after murderer while people keep getting murdered, the entire culture of law and order is completely warped and backwards.
Laws shouldn’t have to be enforced. This may be a utopian ideal — a world with no struggle, no scarcity, no disagreement, and everybody happily obeying a common consensus of appropriate behavior all the time — but that’s not an excuse not to try. Every engineer knows that a system will always have bugs and flaws, but that’s not a reason to accept them. When that system is society itself, the system that runs our entire world, we should be less accepting of flaws than in any other case. Let’s acknowledge that law enforcement is a kludge, a hack, a quick and dirty fix that shouldn’t have to be there, and work to prevent it from ever having to happen.