Avarice

I got called in for jury duty, yet again. As it happened I used a hardship—being reduced yet again to Uber and Lyft, I’m just barely getting by, and a two-week trial would be ruinous—to get out of it, but as long-time readers know, our system of injustice is one of many features of our system of social organization that I dissent from.

In general, I object to the reduction of justice to law, especially law passed predominantly by wealthy white men. Jeffrey Reiman has noted the consequent discrepancy: The system of injustice is lenient towards the wealthy, but the poor and people of color face discrimination at every stage of the process, from suspicion all the way to sentencing.[1] Those sentences don’t merely harm the accused but their families and communities, while incarceration takes on the character of an epidemic.[2] And when the accused receive trials at all—there’s a lot of pressure to accept plea bargains, which count as guilty pleas—the outcomes will be the result of a profoundly flawed process.[3]

In this case, it appeared the accused was not poor. The judge came down the Jury Assembly Room and put in an appearance with the district attorney (prosecuting), a lawyer who didn’t look at all like a public defender (defending), the defendant who was wearing a nice suit and, if he was in handcuffs, was permitted to hide this fact behind other people present, including a single bailiff. The entourage was relaxed, apparently confident the accused would not flee or commit an assault.

Great, I thought to myself, this guy is certainly at least upper middle class, which suggests the elderly person he is accused of bilking might be quite wealthy. As class conflicts go, this is one I have little interest in.

But I was also thinking about the charges. Allegedly, the man had committed elder abuse and “converted” assets, meaning he’d taken property entrusted to him and used it for personal gain.[4]

I see no actual perpetrators in such a case. Both the accused and the victim are trying to get by in a system of exchange that embeds a power relationship that, by privileging whomever has the greater power to say no, widens social inequality.[5] Meanwhile, our social system limits access[6] to socially approved means of attaining socially approved ends, leaving some, such as, possibly, the accused, to seek socially approved ends through socially disapproved means. (There are also the matters of socially approved and socially disapproved means to socially disapproved ends, but I suspect such are not at issue in this case.)[7]

The accused, it would seem, may have succumbed to avarice, a sin which is much more often and much more prominently rewarded than prosecuted. And now, he might go to prison if his lawyer fails to introduce sufficient doubt in the jury’s minds.

When I first began attending Saybrook University, in the program that led to my Ph.D., my first advisor was Joel Federman. I remember asking him what the deal was with human nature: Is it inherently good or evil? Or something close to that, anyway.

Federman’s response was that humans have a range of possibilities. I think of this and I think also of Erich Fromm’s brilliant dissection of our society as perverse towards and as warping its members[8] And I realize that our society constrains the range that Federman pointed to: Some might say it brings out the worst in us.

Which is to say that our society produces the very criminality it seeks to punish. Which scarcely has any relationship to justice at all.

  1. [1]Jeffrey Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, 7th ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2004).
  2. [2]Ernest Drucker, A Plague of Prisons: The Epidemiology of Mass Incarceration in America(New York: New Press, 2011).
  3. [3]Dan Simon, In Doubt: The Psychology of the Criminal Justice Process (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2012).
  4. [4]The ALM (formerly American Lawyer Media) defines “conversion” at https://dictionary.law.com/Default.aspx?selected=346 as “a civil wrong (tort) in which one converts another’s property to his/her own use, which is a fancy way of saying ‘steals.’” This was, however, a criminal case.
  5. [5]Max Weber, “Class, Status, Party,” in Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, ed. Charles Lemert, 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010), 119-129.
  6. [6]Claude S. Fischer et al., “Why Inequality?” in Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005), 9-15.
  7. [7]Robert K. Merton, “Social Structure and Anomie,” Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, ed. Charles Lemert, 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010), 229-242.
  8. [8]Erich Fromm, The Sane Society (1956; repr., Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon, UK: Routledge, 2010).

Author: benfell

David Benfell holds a Ph.D. in Human Science from Saybrook University. He earned a M.A. in Speech Communication from CSU East Bay in 2009 and has studied at California Institute of Integral Studies. He is an anarchist, a vegetarian ecofeminist, a naturist, and a Taoist.

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