What is justice? Its own reward? Sure, I suppose, but "Its own reward" is an answer to "What is the reward for justice?" not the more fundamental "What is justice?"

What is justice? Its own reward? Sure, I suppose, but "Its own reward" is an answer to "What is the reward for justice?" not the more fundamental "What is justice?"


Hammurabi brought us the whole "an eye for an eye" concept of justice, which is perfectly sound logic as a metaphor, but not very practical when it comes to most non-ocular, modern crimes. And besides, Gandhi said that kind of thinking would make the whole world blind. (Although if we’re trying to stay accurate, that’s only half true.)


But blindness vis-à-vis justice bring us to something that strikes more at the heart of the matter: the claim that justice should be blind. Though that, too, is an incomplete thought. To borrow some terms from economics, should justice be blind to opportunity and blind to outcomes?


We all agree that justice should be blind to opportunity. We believe that no matter your profession, sex or income, a judge should adjudicate you the same as anyone else who commits an identical crime.


But if we stipulate that very few crimes are identical, do we really want a system that’s blind to outcomes? Because a system that’s blind to outcomes views the law with such rigidity that the individual circumstances of cases are ignored. When the only question a judge can ask is, ‘Does this particular action cross some arbitrary line?’ good people who make mistakes become collateral damage, and promising lives are ruined.


The line of thinking that asserts, "The law is the law" as a way of saying that circumstances should be ignored in favor of a strict interpretation of line-crossing is flawed. Laws should be implemented by police, district attorneys and judges in ways that stay true to their intent, making sure the punishment fits not the crime per se so much as the transgression’s result.


Most of us would agree that jaywalking on an empty street should not be punished the same as jaywalking in traffic, but technically they’re both violations of the law. It’s common sense that public urinators shouldn’t be prosecuted like sex predators, but in certain jurisdictions they have similar repercussions. And why do we begrudgingly accept that traveling at 70 mph is fine but 75 mph on the same street is a $200 ticket? Was public safety endangered proportional to that amount?


We have so many laws on the books that oftentimes their implementation is not an application but a sublimation of justice. If we could change the culture of the criminal justice system from two-tone to gray scale — a system where the opportunities for prosecution are firm but the outcomes are subjective to the circumstances — it would make for a richer, more powerful citizenry, emptier jails, and a more just society.


There’s a great line in the opening minutes of the Coen Brothers’ classic film "Raising Arizona" in which the protagonist, a small-time crook minutes away from capture, summarizes his thoughts on crime and punishment: "Now I don’t know how you come down on the incarceration question — whether it’s for rehabilitation or revenge — but I was beginning to think revenge is the only argument makes any sense."


We have a justice system that’s big on revenge. But revenge for revenge’s sake isn’t justice; it’s just the opposite. A one-size-fits-all outcome is easy to enforce — just find the imaginary line in the sand and ask "Did he cross it?" But that’s the the kind of logic achieved with a blindfold. Finding real justice requires you open your eyes and look at the scales.


NATE STRAUCH is a reporter with the Herald Democrat. Email him at nstrauch@ heralddemocrat.com.