Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Constructing our reality

I was on my way to the office last night to meet with a client. I flipped on the radio in the car and the only thing worth listening to was the TED Radio Hour on NPR. The topic appeared to be why do people do bad things.

The first speaker was Dr. Philip Zimbardo who conducted a famous experiment in the basement of the Stanford psychology lab 42 years ago. Dr. Zimbardo found two dozen volunteers - he selected half of them to be prisoners and the other half to be prison guards. The experiment was supposed to last for two weeks but it was called out after just a few days because of the sadistic behavior of the guards and the mental breakdowns of the prisoners.

Dr. Zimbardo focused on why good people do evil things. He settled on the social constructs in which we live and breathe. Now, I think he made a false dichotomy between good and evil; I think calling something or someone "evil" allows us to avoid any serious analysis of the problem. But, he looking at social constructs as being the conduit for certain behavior is right on the money.

For an everyday example, just peek your head in any criminal courtroom anywhere around the country and you will see what happens when you slap labels on people and encourage others to treat folks based on the label they're wearing. Defendants are brought in every day who can't afford to post bond. Many of these folks were arrested for nonviolent offenses. But, when given a choice between issuing a personal bond, releasing the defendant and allowing him to fight his case from the outside, or coercing a plea by refusing to look at bond in the context of that particular defendant, you know the choice that will be made.

In some courts judges and court personnel will treat defendants like garbage because they are defendants. We are socialized very early on to believe that a police officer is telling the truth and that the defendant will say whatever he must in order to get away with his crime.

The judge, and his or her staff, are more concerned with moving cases along than they are about the outcome of those cases. After all, regardless of what happens today, there will be someone new sitting on that bench in the morning. Prosecutors are trained to be cogs in the machine. Defense attorneys who prod their clients into pleading out their cases are rewarded with additional appointments. Defendants are just the product that's being moved from room to room without much consideration for the consequences of the game played out in the courtroom.

Now I know I'm painting with a broad brush and that not every judge, prosecutor or defense attorney fits into this model. Unfortunately they are becoming more and more the exception rather than the rule.

I have colleagues who will throw out the word evil when describing this scenario, but I think that description is a bit too simplistic. Our criminal (in)justice system is the culprit in our drama. Those folks in the courtroom are minor stars or bit players. But we all operate within a social construct in which those who can least afford bail and counsel are treated like cattle. There's no need to investigate the case - there'll be another one tomorrow. The defendant just wants to get out of jail and the players know the road map to the outside - get an offer with the exit within reach and plead it out. The system forces the players to blindly recite rights and privileges that no one seriously expected anyone to exercise. We mouth the words and we all go home at the end of the day regardless of what happens to the accused.

We pretend that the plea wasn't coerced by the denial of reasonable bail or the inflating of charges. We pretend that the attorney had adequate time to investigate the case between docket call and lunch. Collateral consequences? Who gives a fuck? Not my problem.

Few question the basic assumptions of our criminal (in)justice system. Few ask questions. Why won't judges grant personal bonds for non-violent first offenders? Why are defendants required to appear at every court setting when there is no need for them to be there? What's the magic number for sentencing? Is a 5 year sentence any more just than a sentence of 54 months? Why are defendants who bonded being supervised by the probation department when they haven't been found guilty of anything? Why is drug addiction treated as a legal and not a medical issue?

Take a look at the jail. The overwhelming majority of detainees and inmates are poor, male and non-white. What message is that sending to their children? How are we socializing the most vulnerable among us?

The system is corrupt. We all know it. There is no such thing as the presumption of innocence. When that jury walks into the courtroom they are told the person sitting next to the defense attorney is the defendant. He or she is dehumanized by the prosecution and the court throughout the entire trial. They are dehumanized for the same reason the student prisoners were dehumanized in Dr. Zimbardo's experiment -- because one you dehumanize someone it's easier to treat them as somehow less worthy of respect, compassion and empathy.

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