For a millennia political philosophers, such as Plato, have pondered over the concept of legal justice. Plato’s Crito perfectly encapsulates the principles of political gratitude. The outcome of which suggests that we owe a debt to the states into which we are born simply because we were born into them. In the current day the western world clearly adopts these principles. Citizens are accountable to the law, and that’s that. In many ways this is comforting, isn’t it? Just knowing that people aren’t likely to rob you or cause you harm because their own ‘freedom’ is at stake. Though what happens when our moral values don’t actually function in practice? In our beloved liberal democracies there are cases where people are imprisoned somewhat unjustly. Causing mass murderers to serve similar sentences to petty thieves and pizza lovers.
Case in point, recently Radovan Karadzic was sentenced for 40 years by the ICTY (International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia) in the Hague for his involvement in the Balkan Wars in the 90s.
For those of you who are unaware of Karadzic and the Balkan wars, it started when former Yugoslavian countries declared their independence against Soviet Union occupation. Without going into too much detail, the wars saw a multitude of mass atrocities where thousands were murdered due to cases of ethnic cleansing, genocide, and collateral damage. I have actually visited the ICTY and seen Karadzic in the flesh, behind bullet proof glass, during one of the court sessions. Needless to say it is very hard to describe the feeling of seeing one of the most evil men on the planet in person. Hearing that he was responsible for ordering mortar strikes on innocent civilians sent chills down my spine. He has committed hideous acts against humanity and what did he get for these crimes? The equivalent of two life sentences. That’s it. That, according to the ICTY, is the sentence for committing genocide. Although he is 70, on good behaviour he could be released in 30-35 years. Meaning, it is possible for him to outlive his sentence. It is unlikely, but possible. So considering this, why is it that a man such as Karadzic can commit such despicable acts against humanity and only get 40 years? Whilst in ‘liberal democracies’, such as America, a person can get 25 years simply for stealing a slice of pizza?
It’s true, in America Jerry Dewayne Williams was sentenced to 25 years for stealing a slice of pizza from a group of children. So, okay, I do admit that it’s not cool to do such a thing but at the same time, does it really warrant 25 years? Especially when you consider that is more than half of Karadzic’s sentence and he was responsible for killing thousands of people. If Williams stole two slices of pizza would that make him worse than a mass murderer? If he, instead of stealing the pizza, massacred the group of children, would that get him just 15 more years in jail? Maybe nabbing the whole pizza would warrant the death penalty? Of course I am being hyperbolic to further my own argument but you get the point.
“Williams will be facing the same sentence as if he’d raped a woman”.
It is clear that we live in a world where the scales of justice aren’t actually scales at all. You see the scales metaphor would imply a balance of some kind. It suggests a means of quantifying and measuring crime and giving the appropriate amount of justice in return. Is this the case when looking at the mass murderer and the pizza thief? This disturbed sense of justice is made even more apparent when realising the absolute hypocrisy of this entire scenario, as the U.S. is a permanent member of the UNSC (United Nations Security Council). The very organisation that convicted Karadzic is permanently represented by a country who treats petty thieves as if they were mass murderers. How can this be? I mean, Uncle Sam, are you being serious right now? 25 years for A STUPID SLICE OF PIZZA!?!?!?!?!?! Sorry, I lost it for a moment there. I mean I must be on the UN’s most wanted list considering the amount of pizzas I have helped myself to at gatherings. Pizza’s that I never paid for. Again I am being hyperbolic, but I believe it necessary as this is just such a distorted concept, isn’t it? Or is it just me? Maybe I am the crazy one… moving swiftly on I do feel it necessary to mention that this was Jerry Dewayne Williams’ fourth criminal offence. So it wasn’t just one slice of pizza that led him to such a sentence. He did have prior convictions including robbery, attempted robbery, drug abuse and unauthorised use of a vehicle. That’s right, he was a victim of America’s three strike system. Which is their response to apparent ‘career criminals’. Basically, the government recognises the excessive amount of petty crimes committed in the U.S . Instead of the government acknowledging that these crimes are linked to the abundance of extreme poverty in the U.S, their view is that the state owes people nothing and it is much easier to imprison the poor people than help them. You know legal policy is good when it’s based on sports! “Three strikes and you’re OUT!” I am fairly certain that throughout history all legitimate forms of legal structures and political systems have been established using the moral principles and philosophies of sports, right? Yeah that sounds like sound policy-making right there. Mind you, is it really that surprising coming from a country that holds 20% of the world’s prisoners but is only 5% of the world’s population? What did you expect from this liberal democratic world super power, Liberty? That’ll be the day.
So what should take from all this when the distinctions between pizza theft and genocide are blurred? It is clear that there is a skewed sense of justice in the American system. It is also clear that, despite the UN’s efforts, there is a great failing here to give Karadzic a more severe punishment. However, this doesn’t mean I support the death penalty, nor does it mean I think petty crimes are meaningless. I also accept that ,even though America is on the UNSC, it is still separate and controls its own laws. What I am emphasising is the hypocrisy. What this shows is not that the death penalty is the solution, but instead the American retributive system responds to crime through punitive methods. This causes an abundance of social injustice. What people, like Williams, may benefit from instead of imprisonment is community service/orders. Instead of 25 years in prison for three petty crimes the state could cooperate with him. It highlights the authoritative aspects of one of the worlds top ‘democratic’ actors. It feels almost medieval, like the state is cutting the hand off the the peasant who stole some bread from the local bakery. I’m pretty sure we all believe that in this day and age we are beyond that, yet the rampant injustice continues. So what can we do about it? Well, realistically, not much. This is just one specific, ridiculous example. All it does is make you sad and it pretty much reinforces your belief that the system really can suck. All we can do is take solace in the fact that at least we know it sucks, with the hope that future generations will learn from these stupid mistakes. Its not much, but hopefully there will come a time where the distinctions between mass murderers and pizza thieves, in the eyes of the law, are clearer.