Thursday, July 8, 2010

Justice and Retribution

The SF Chronicle reports:
A jury found former BART police Officer Johannes Mehserle guilty Thursday of involuntary manslaughter, concluding that he did not intend to kill train rider Oscar Grant when he shot him in the back on New Year's Day 2009 but acted so recklessly that he showed a disregard for Grant's life.
There are questions as to whether this was an appropriate sentence, with many thinking he got off too easy.  Mark Kleiman agrees with the sentence and finds the retribution fair:
It’s good to see the people who otherwise condemn the pointlessness of harsh retributive justice making an exception in this case. Perhaps retribution is actually a legitimate function of punishment after all?
On what basis are we making a case for retribution? Who is he “paying” by his stay in prison?
Let me back up… I don’t believe in contra-causal free will, so he wasn’t ultimately responsible for his actions, in the sense that whatever impulses he was acting on were causing his actions. So if anyone should be “paying” for his crime, it should be the various factors that created in him the impulse to act as he did. But since that is a degree of knowledge that we can’t know, such retribution would be impossible. Retribution always seems to require causal knowledge that does not exist.

It seems then the only real question is one of utility. What deterrence does his incarceration provide to his future behavior, as well as other officers? Is he a danger to the community? And what level of rehabilitation is possible for him while imprisoned.

There is also the consideration of a sense of justice for the family. But if he was not ultimately responsible, their hurt, while understandable as a human impulse, seems misguided. If a tree falls on your house, whether or not you feel the need for justice, or revenge, and thus to chop it to bits, it seems misguided. Should you not be angry at the storm that blew it over? Or the low pressure and humidity?
All of this may seem too abstract. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t correct.

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