SCHWARTZ: Hold on to the substance

The Gadfly

Now that the dust has cleared from New Haven’s over-hyped aldermanic races, it is likely that activist energy will subside and political engagement will dissipate. How remarkable might it be if we continued to think about some of the substantive issues that animated the campaign?

Yishai Schwartz '13
Yishai Schwartz '13

As with nearly all modern elections, over the course of this campaign, candidates made desperate use of policy proposals and forceful advocacy. On a certain level, this is unfortunate; issues of equality, justice, social welfare and urban improvement should be subjects of conversation even without a friend’s name on a ballot. But one of the few benefits of the media frenzy over process is that substance slipped in from time to time. Let’s hold onto the substance for a bit longer.

One of the most discussed initiatives of this campaign cycle was Vinay Nayak’s Ban the Box proposal — designed to incentivize private employers to stop asking about a job applicant’s criminal history on pre-interview application forms. The goal was to force employers to meet applicants face-to-face and think substantively about whether an applicant’s criminal history would actually affect his job performance. The rationale was not simply that such an approach was ultimately more just, but also that it would contribute to a safer society with lower recidivism. Most debate centered on this latter point, but what about the former — what about abstract notions of justice?

As I thought about the issue, I couldn’t get away from the impersonality of the box on the applicant form. A decision is made without a moment’s concern for the circumstances or specifics of the criminal or crime. Of course, convicts are certainly not the only people to experience the nuanceless rigidity of an application process. Standardized testing, checklist applications forms and brusque interviews are representative of precisely the same problems.

But even as I understand the desire to eliminate disparity and the demand for efficiency that motivate this kind of process, I worry that these ex-offenders are running into precisely the same problem they have already experienced in a different context: the criminal justice system itself.

We often talk of an ideal of blind justice, but we should think carefully about what that ideal actually means. In the 1970s, “unwarranted disparity” became a rallying cry for reformers. Fearing judicial arbitrariness and racially influenced sentences, reformers swept standardization into the justice system. Nationwide, sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimums stripped judges of their discretionary power, and the elimination of parole ended yet another mechanism for personalized analyses of individual prisoners.

Can all the factors that should affect a criminal sentence be listed on a worksheet or placed on a grid? Can justice be meted out by the mechanical calculations of a law clerk inputting data into abstract formulas? Just sentencing requires a complex weighing of facts and a balancing of purposes that require human moral intuition. That is impossible to reduce to a science. In our rush to eliminate disparity, we have also suffocated the individualization that justice requires.

Our courts are not so different from the employers Nayak sought to influence, but in our justice system, the demands of productivity are no excuse. The country’s criminal justice system demands reform, but now that we’re done hanging up election posterboards, will anyone take up that fight?

I digress — but that is entirely the point. I began this column bemoaning aldermanic election hype, and then segued from a local campaign issue to a rant about the current state of criminal justice in this country. That may seem circuitous, but it is the only way to endow the circus we have just completed with any meaning.

It is quite likely that our new alderwoman’s ideas for New Haven have already received more attention than they will over the course of the next two years. Unless we can find — and cling to — the substance in the madness, Ward 1’s little experiment with democracy will have been a colossal waste of time. America’s justice systems — and so many other broken pieces of this country — are waiting for you to take notice.

Yishai Schwartz is a junior in Branford College. His column runs on Thursdays. Contact him at yishai.schwartz@yale.edu.

Comments

  • desch

    I’m really glad that you wrote about this. Thank you.