Expensive, Ineffective Justice

A disturbing animal cruelty case highlights problems with America’s criminal justice system.

A one year-old feral cat called King was lured into the trust of a Brooklyn man named Andre Robinson who made it look like he was going to play with or feed him. He then took advantage of the small animal’s trust and kicked him into the air. King landed 20 feet away while Robinson and his friends laughed. King survived the attack, was rescued, recovered from his injuries in an animal hospital, and was later adopted.

The incident was caught on camera by one of Robinson’s laughing friends and posted online, resulting in an outcry by horrified animal rights activists.  Social media was called into play to highlight the case, as a Facebook page called Justice for King attracted over 12,000 followers demanding a custodial sentence for the perpetrator who was promptly identified, arrested, and charged.

The case highlights a number of issues.  One is the ubiquity of video recording devices. Twenty years ago video cameras were bulky, expensive, and rare, and an incident like this would not have made it into the local newspaper, to say nothing of becoming a story with a worldwide audience. Today video cameras are in almost everyone’s pockets as part of their mobile phones, and with internet connectivity and social media the footage can be distributed worldwide within minutes. People’s behavior is slowly being modified by this phenomenon.

When George Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four he envisioned an omnipresent surveillance network operated by a tyrannical state, since in his day only a state would have the resources to implement such a system.  He had no way of foreseeing that it would eventually be citizens who would choose to put a surveillance camera everywhere.

Secondly, the fact that animal cruelty is being taken more seriously will be welcome news for those who hold strong views about animal rights. Society’s attitude to these matters evolves over time.  It was not so long ago that it was considered acceptable to employ children as laborers in dirty and dangerous occupations.  It was not so long ago that homophobic attitudes were considered the norm and it was acceptable to openly express them. The evolution of attitudes is one of the ways in which we build a better society, and as part of that process it would seem that our view of animals is changing to a more humane one. This is driven in part by the better organization of animal welfare activists who can more easily get organized to identify perpetrators, train law enforcement in dealing with it, and apply pressure for stiffer sentences for offenders.

Law enforcement agencies are now taking animal abuse more seriously than they used to and are dedicating more resources to tackling it, reflecting its status as a more mainstream concern rather than something that only matters to fringe activists. Animal cruelty as a gateway to more serious offenses is also highlighted as a need to crack down on it in order to prevent escalation to even more violent crimes.

However a third aspect of the case involves the issue of what should be the appropriate consequences of someone convicted of such an offense. Lawyers defending the accused are said to have argued that a custodial sentence would have damaging long term effects such as encouraging gang affiliations, or removing someone from a job or school to which he would not be able to return.

That lawyers are now arguing against prison time on the basis that it makes offenders more dangerous is surely an indictment of the American penal system. The purpose of prison should be to make people less dangerous upon release, not more so. But try explaining that to the posturing politicians in the “tough on crime” lobby who seem to think that being “tough on crime” is the same as being tough on criminals by sending them into a hellish prison system in which they are likely to be brutalized, raped, perhaps even killed, and if they survive the ordeal they will emerge into a society that often deprives them of the means of making an honest living, effectively punishing them for life even after they have served their time.

The concept of prison as a means of rehabilitation is notable by its absence in much of the discourse on this topic. The Department of Justice estimates that 200,000 inmates were sexually abused in 2011, most of them male. However sexual assault on male prisoners is still considered acceptable comedy fodder for entertainers and even some aspiring politicians. The mass incarceration of nonviolent offenders, many of whom are mentally ill or suffering from addiction, has produced an overcrowded penal system in which all hell breaks loose and the most vulnerable people are treated as subhuman by an uncaring society that dismisses their concerns with a “should have thought about it before you committed the crime” attitude. America is home to 5 percent of the world’s population but a quarter of the world’s prisoners. The “land of the free” locks up a larger proportion of its black population than South Africa did in the darkest days of apartheid.

America is a long way from the Scandinavian model of jail as an educational resource that is so successful in the case of Sweden that prisons have had to be closed for lack of prisoners. One glaring obstacle is the sheer size of America’s prison population, something that can only be shrunk by a sensible approach to substance abuse and the legalization of marijuana. An end to mandatory minimum sentencing, which ratchets up sentences to medieval levels, would also help. Only with a smaller prison population is there any chance of changing the emphasis to rehabilitation and even then it would require a shift in incentives. As it stands, the for-profit prison system has an incentive to lobby for longer sentences to sweep up more people into its expanding dragnet, since more prisoners means more money. If it is too much for America to see prisons run by the state, then prison management and staff should be given performance-based pay that takes into account recidivism rates among prisoners who pass under their watch.  This would concentrate more minds to find solutions that actually work in practice, rather than perpetuating the current humanitarian catastrophe at the behest of the baying mob. It would also help if former prisoners had their rights restored on release and were not prevented from voting or finding employment.

For people like Mr Robinson, an appropriate sentence would act as a deterrent to others, but it should also ensure that he does not repeat such a vile act and that he respects animals. If that means a custodial sentence then it should not be so long that it places excessive costs on the taxpayer, but it should be in a system that makes him less dangerous on release.