In classical liberalism, justice leaves society better off by providing a chance for a better life.
- How can we ensure people get what they are due, in terms of justice?
- Philosophy professor at University of Arizona, David Schmidtz says the answer to this question needs context. Who is the person we're referring to, and to what are we responding?
- Some elements of justice include equality, returning favors, and the right to air grievances.
- Prejudice is typically perpetrated against 'the other', i.e. a group outside our own.
- But ageism is prejudice against ourselves — at least, the people we will (hopefully!) become.
- Different generations needs to cooperate now more than ever to solve global problems.
Handing out tickets might be distracting police departments from working on more serious crimes.
- Recent research uncovered that the more a city's police department collects fines and fees, the less effective they are at solving crimes.
- In cities where violent crimes are not solved, trust in the police goes down. As a result, citizens report fewer crimes to the police, causing a vicious cycle.
- To address this, cities need to focus less on fining those who break minor laws and focus more on violent/property crimes.
For those of you who've traveled through the U.S. on a road trip before, this is probably a familiar experience. The miles are slipping by, and you're zooming along at a comfortable 70 miles per hour. A speed-limit sign zips by: 35 miles per hour. Suddenly, a Crown Victoria with blue and red flashing lights and a siren pulls out of a side street concealed by the trees. Minutes later, you've earned yourself a $90 ticket and some points on your car insurance.
Sure, regulating speed is important, but some cities in America seem hell-bent on applying the squeeze. It might ruin your day, but for the city, it's a great way to drum up some extra revenue. But, it turns out that police departments that focus on collecting fines and fees for the city also do a worse job at solving crimes.
Keeping their eyes on the money
The revenue from fines and fees like parking tickets are used to bump up the city's budget.
Flickr user Charleston's TheDigitel
A recent study published in Urban Affairs Review took a look at the correlation between how much money cities collected through police departments and how well those police departments solved crimes. About 80% of U.S. cities get some portion of their revenue from the fines and fees levied by police departments. The worst 6% of these cities relied on fines and fees for as much as 10% of their revenue. If you were hoping to figure out which cities to avoid on your next road trip, the study regrettably did not name them.
The researchers found a startingly correlation: for every 1% of a city's budget that was derived from police fees and fines, 6.1% fewer violent crimes and 8.3% fewer property crimes were solved.
To reach this conclusion, the researchers looked at three different data sets.
- The Census of Governments, which collects data on the budget compositions of the roughly 90,000 local governments in the U.S., including how much of their budget comes from fines and fees
- The FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting data, which collects statistics on violent crimes (like murder) and property crimes (like car theft or burglary) as well as how many of those crimes have been solved
- The Census of State and Local Law Enforcement Agencies, which contains data on the size of police forces, their budget, the various roles of a city's police officers, and other statistics on local law enforcement
Looking through these data sets and examining the relationships within, the researchers came up with a few different explanations for why collecting more fines lowered crime clearance rates.
Why levying fines lowers efficacy
Part of the reason why more fines issued means fewer crimes solved is that fining people takes up a significant chunk of a police officer's time.
Joshua Lott/Getty Images
First, aggressively enforcing laws that accrue fines and fees (like setting up speed traps) can use up the time officers would otherwise use to solve crimes. Importantly, smaller cities—those with less than 28,010 citizens—had the strongest relationship between higher revenue collection and lower crime-solving rates.
This is because larger cities generally have specialized police forces, where some officers specifically enforce laws that generate city revenue and other officers pursue violent crime or property crime. Smaller cities don't have this luxury. Generally, their police officers do every kind of job a police officer might do. So, when the city puts a greater emphasis on collecting revenue, the officers have less time to do their work.
The study also offered another explanation. Research shows that the more negative interactions there are with police officers, the less a population trusts those officers. Traffic stops are by far the most common type of interaction between the general public and the police. Not only are these inherently unpleasant interactions between the police and a citizen, but the increased rate of traffic stops also increases the likelihood that something will go wrong.
With less trust between a population and its police, 911 is called less frequently, making it more difficult to solve crimes. What's more, this leads to a vicious cycle—research has also shown that a higher rate of unsolved violent crimes leads to less trust in the police.
Who’s getting squeezed?
The study found that African-American and poor communities tended to be fined the most.
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Since we're talking about broken police practices in America, it'll come as no surprise that rich, white folk aren't the ones getting screwed. The study noted that "cities with a higher number of African-Americans, less-educated residents, lower tax revenues, and lower […] representation of minorities [in local government] tend to collect a greater share of revenues from fines and fees." Every 10% increase in the population of African-Americans in a city was also associated with a 1.1% lower rate of crime clearance. So, the more African-Americans in a city, the more likely police are to extract fines and fees from its residents and the less likely they are to work on solving crimes. This explanation also fits well with the well-studied fact that many African-American communities in U.S. cities have very little trust in the police.
It's important to note that this study didn't establish causality. Just because a police department with higher rates of fine and fee collection has lower rates of crime clearance doesn't mean the first causes the second; they're just related figures. For instance, the authors noted that higher crime rates might discourage people from moving to the city, driving down the property values. Since a city gets most of its revenue from property taxes, the city might have no choice but to aggressively fine its residents.
Ultimately, however, the effect is the same: relatively law-abiding citizens get taxed for breaking minor laws, while violent criminals and thieves get away with their crimes. If we want to fix crime in America and for our cities to prosper, police departments and city governments need to focus less on squeezing their residents for every penny and more on solving crimes that truly damage our cities.
Is it better to have the harm of 100 sexual assaults than the harm of one false conviction?
Conviction rates for sexual assault against women are shockingly low, to the extent that, even in a developed nation such as the United Kingdom, only 6 per cent of rape allegations result in a conviction, a far lower rate than for any other violent crime. As The Guardian columnist Julia Bindel puts it, ‘rape might as well be legal’.
Disturbingly low conviction rates have many explanations, but one contributing factor is the ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ standard of evidence employed in criminal cases. This standard requires that the jury not have any reasonable doubts about the defendant’s guilt in order to convict. Doubts they have that are frivolous or hypothetical should be put aside.
Unfortunately, this standard contributes to a low conviction rate in cases of sexual assault, which is often physically indistinguishable from consensual sex. This means that a verdict can hinge solely on testimony. When two people tell stories convincingly, each story casts some reasonable doubt on the other.
The standard is also incorrectly applied due to the prevalence of rape myths – prejudicial, stereotyped or false beliefs about rape, rape victims and rape perpetrators. These myths involve blaming the victim and sympathising with the perpetrator, along with the common belief that women, motivated by jealousy, revenge or spite, falsely claim rape after consensual sex.
‘Testimonial injustice’, a concept developed by the feminist theorist Miranda Fricker at the University of Sheffield, is a systematic, insidious tendency to unjustifiably and often unintentionally downgrade the credibility of women’s testimony. Testimonial injustice and rape myths function together to render unreasonable doubts reasonable in the minds of judges and juries. Even judges can buy into the most egregious stereotypes about women’s sexual behaviour.
Part of the response to this dire situation is surely better prevention of sexual violence against women, as well as raising awareness of deep-seated social prejudices. However, we should also question what justifies the reasonable doubt standard in the first place, and whether it has been unduly stretched in the case of sexual assault. The 18th-century jurist Sir William Blackstone provides perhaps the best-known statement of the rationale behind the reasonable doubt standard. Blackstone argued: ‘It is better that 10 guilty persons escape than that one innocent should suffer.’ A strong intuition seems to undergird this proclamation: the harms of false conviction are so severe that the legal standard of evidence should drastically reduce the likelihood of it occurring.
For the falsely accused, these harms can indeed be severe. They include stigma, broken relationships, violent victimisation in prison, lost income, an increased likelihood of committing crimes, and greater difficulty in finding employment after release. On the face of it, it seems as though the potential to inflict such harms on an innocent person justifies an extremely high standard of evidence like the reasonable doubt standard.
This move is too quick though, since it neglects the harms of false acquittal. In considering whether or not a standard of proof is justified, we should consider not just the harm done to the one man wrongly convicted, but also the harm done by the 10 men wrongly released. This means that the justification for a standard of proof should also consider the accrued harms of false acquittal to the initial victim, to future victims of those criminals and to society.
In the case of sexual assault, these harms are extraordinarily severe. The victim suffers horrendously through the trial and is often badgered into reliving disturbing details of the incident. When the false acquittal is reached, all this is for nothing. Worse than this, she is falsely branded a liar, with all the psychological trauma this entails.
The harms of false acquittal to future victims and their loved ones amplify and extend this harm. Indeed it has been suggested that the trauma of sexual assault is greater than that experienced by war veterans.
Moreover, sexual offenders are likely to offend multiple times. In one study, rapists self-reported an average of 10 violent crimes, even before their ‘careers’ had ended. Consequently, to paraphrase Blackstone’s ratio with reference to sexual violence would mean saying it’s better to have the harm of 100 sexual assaults than the harm of one false conviction – a conclusion that is untenable.
All this is without consideration of the social harm of false acquittal. One is that false acquittals contribute to a vicious circle: a lower chance of conviction leads to a lower likelihood of reporting. Lower reporting again reduces the chance of conviction and so on. Given this circle, it is perhaps unsurprising that in the UK it is estimated that between 75 per cent and 95 per cent of rapes are never even reported. Those that are reported are often not investigated or prosecuted because of the low chances of conviction.
A vicious circle operates in another respect, too: false acquittals reinforce rape myths. When a man is found not guilty on the basis of reasonable doubt, this creates the impression, wrongly, that he was in fact innocent and the accuser was a liar. The large number of acquittals in rape cases thus serves to strengthen and reinforce utterly unfounded rape myths that women are vindictive and frequently lie about having given consent. Again, these myths feed into the social imagination, prejudicing judges and juries, and further lowering the likelihood of conviction.
As it stands, the legal system is weighted unfairly in favour of perpetrators of sexual assault. In addition to sending out a powerful expression of intolerance for gender violence, a lower standard of proof can decrease these harms by reducing the likelihood of false acquittal. Reasonable doubt is inappropriate, but what standard would do better?
Of the standards commonly employed in law, only the ‘preponderance of the evidence’ standard has been used on a consistent basis to decide cases of sexual violence, albeit in civil trials. Indeed, given the high probability of false acquittal, civil trials have increasingly become a first port of call for female victims of sexual violence in the US. Rather than calling for the absence of doubt, this standard judges a case on what the evidence leads one to believe most strongly. If a woman’s testimony provides a stronger reason to believe that she did not give consent, this should be enough.
Christopher Wareham & James Vos
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
Imagine a world in which all the babies born each day were randomly redistributed among the biological parents. The infant assigned to any given set of parents could be white, black, Asian, Hispanic, Native American, or any combination thereof (and that’s just the US); the baby could be perfectly healthy or grossly deformed. Parents would know only that their child was not their biological child. Let us call this social mixing.
This plan is of course politically impossible, perhaps even repellent. Our goal, however, is to engage the reader in a thought experiment, to examine why it stirs up such uncomfortable feelings.
Is the idea so frightening? Yes it is. It is a frightening thought that your own biological child, the one sitting there now doing her homework, might have gone to an impoverished mother or a drug addict, perhaps have been beaten, perhaps starved. But why, save for genetic chauvinism, do we view with comparative equanimity the everyday reality of other people’s children subject to the same treatment by their own biological mothers?
You may argue that genetic bias is indelible in human nature. Social mixing would not only disturb the comfort of this fatalistic attitude, but also use genetic chauvinism for ends beyond mere economic equality, providing grounds for a compassion that goes beyond the wellbeing of our immediate families. Since any man might be your biological brother, any woman your biological sister, concern for them would have to be expressed by a concern for a common good.
A second effect of social mixing would be to generate a strong interest in the health and wellbeing of expectant mothers, which would ultimately translate into an interest in the social and biological welfare of everyone. Since any child might end up our own, we would provide the social and educational environments that would best enhance their development. Ghettos and slums would be an eyesore for us all. Poverty, drug, and alcohol addiction are already everyone’s problem, but this fact would be more meaningful than it is now. The child of that addict might be our biological child. Every victim of a drive-by shooting might be a member of our genetic family. Each of us would see the link between our fate and the fate of others.
Third, the superficial connection between colour and culture would be severed. Racism would be wiped out. Racial ghettos would disappear; children of all races would live in all neighbourhoods. Any white child could have black parents and any black child could have white parents. Imagine the US president flanked by his or her black, white, Asian and Hispanic children. Imagine if social mixing had been in effect 100 years ago in Germany, Bosnia, Palestine or the Congo. Racial, religious, and social genocide would not have happened.
Fourth, the plan accords with John Rawls’s concept of justice, introducing a welcome element of randomness into the advantages that each child can expect. At the present time, if you are a child of Bill Gates, you will have not only a genetic advantage but also a material one. Under a regime of social mixing, any baby could find herself the child of Bill Gates and enjoy the opportunity of optimally exercising whatever her genetic gifts might be. As for Bill Gates’s biological child, he might find himself the son of a barber, but with his natural genetic gifts he might make the most of a less than optimal educational environment.
There are, of course, many natural objections to this idea. It will be said that one of the joys of marriage is for lovers to see the product of their love. To this we say that the product of one’s love lies not in the genetic production of a human being but in the mutual cultivation of the life of a child. But isn’t it true that either the genetic match between parent and child or a bond formed between mother and child in the womb makes each parent uniquely fit to raise his or her own child and less fit to raise another child? The evidence for such idiosyncrasy is slight. True, adopted children tend to have more mental and physical problems than non-adopted ones. But children are often adopted at relatively advanced ages, after they have formed close attachments with caregivers. Children adopted during their first year are at no disadvantage relative to non-adopted children.
It will be objected that in defusing genetic chauvinism we will be giving up our only secular moral constraint – which translates into the fear that under social mixing people will be as indifferent to their own real children as they are now to the biological children of others. But there are no grounds for such deep pessimism. Look at the behaviour of adoptive parents now, or look at the practice of surrogate motherhood. The many apparently infertile parents who adopt a baby only to have a biological child subsequently do not tend to reject the first child.
It may be objected that under social mixing cultural diversity would disappear. But this would only be true for diversity that depends on the shape of your features and the colour of your skin. This is the kind of diversity that racists wish to maintain. The cultural diversity we care about – of language, food, dress, religion, music, speech – would be preserved no less than it is now.
It may be objected that parents’ desire to have their own biological children is so strong that they would be blind to the public good, that they would have babies and bring them up in secret. But those babies would not have birth certificates, they would not be citizens, they could not vote, serve in public office and so forth. If discovered, the children might be taken away after the strong bonds of psychological (as opposed to biological) parenthood had been formed. Few Americans would risk these penalties.
It will be objected that incest would occur frequently in a society where biological kinship was obscured. In answer to this, we now have the ability to test prospective parents and to forbid marriages between people with close genetic overlap – whatever the cause. But even if we did not have this ability, is it likely that incest would be more frequent under our plan than it is now (notwithstanding taboos) among close biological relatives living together? Our proposal is certainly no cure-all for all the ills that plague society. People do rape, rob, and murder their relatives and would undoubtedly continue to do so if their relatives were genetically unrelated to them. But our proposal would reduce crimes due to genetic chauvinism – and there are enough of these.
It may be objected that people would not want to bear children only to have them raised by strangers. But genetic narcissism may not be the optimal motive for having children. There may be no correlation between the biological capacity to have children and the ability to cultivate the optimal development of a child. It may be a good thing if only people who passionately wished to be an integral part of the life trajectory of another human being raised children.
Genetic chauvinism lives on very strongly in our culture. Modern fiction and cinema often present adoptees’ searches for biological parents and siblings in a highly positive light. The law in child custody cases is biased towards biological parents over real parents. You might claim that this bias itself is ‘natural’. It is so common as to seem part of our biological makeup. But subjugation of women was also common in primitive human cultures and remains so in many cultures today. Unnatural as it sounds, social mixing promises many advantages. If we are not willing to adopt it, we should consider carefully why. And if naturalness is the key, we should ask ourselves why on this matter, ungoverned nature should trump social cohesion.
Howard Rachlin & Marvin Frankel
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.