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One of the deadliest school shootings in modern American history is now a part of our past. At 2:19 p.m. on Valentine’s Day, Wednesday, February 14, 2018, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, in possession of a semiautomatic AR-15 rifle, began shooting persons on the grounds of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Before he discarded the rifle, vest and ammunition in a stairwell, 17 bodies lay dead at the school. He then blended in with fleeing students, stopped by a Subway and a McDonald’s for refreshments before being arrested by police at 3:41 p.m. as he strolled down a residential street.

With the deed now complete, it’s time to analyze the shooter. Cruz made his first court appearance, clad in an orange jail jumpsuit. His public defender, Melisa McNeil, asked if he understood the circumstances; he whispered “yes, ma’am.” Afterward she said: “He’s sad. He’s mournful. He is fully aware of what is going on, and he’s just a broken human being.” Mr. Weekes, the chief assistant public defender, stated that the lawyers were still trying to piece together the details of Cruz’s life. “Mr. Cruz has a significant history of mental illness,” according to Mr. Weekes, “and is possibly autistic or has a learning disability.” Howard Finkelstein, chief public defender in Broward County, claimed the case will present a difficult question: “Should society execute mentally ill people?” He concluded with the remark: “When we let one of our children fall off grid, when they are screaming for help in every way, do we have the right to kill them when we could have stopped it?”

While the legal practitioners debate the intricacies of Cruz’s delicate state of mind, all segments of society are gearing up to let their voices be heard. School walkouts are scheduled for March 14, organized with help from a youth empowerment arm of the Women’s March, the group which led nationwide protests against President Trump’s administration the day after his inauguration. In addition, a national group, The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, is writing a curriculum on student activism for schools willing to do a teach-in on the walkout day. Not to be outmaneuvered, the American Civil Liberties Union on Thursday will host an online training to help students and their families understand their legal rights should they run afoul of law enforcement or school authorities during the protests and walkouts.

What we are witnessing is the evolution of crime and punishment. Here, near the end of the second decade of this twenty-first century, the United States conducts a unique criminal justice system. Thanks to the War on Drugs, prison cells are filled with non-violent drug users. At the same time large numbers of violent felons avoid incarceration after their offenses are negotiated down to lesser offenses – this, as prisons throughout the nation operate in excess of 100 percent capacity. Even those sentenced to death for heinous murders remain on hold for over a quarter century while the court system processes countless appeals. And all the while our country’s leaders vow to make criminal justice fair while we get tough on crime.

Does any of this make sense? I’m afraid so, though in a perverse way. Never ignore that crime is big business, and not just as Al Capone would have understood. To the people who make criminal justice their occupation, fighting crime means spending money. The constant refrain from this group claims only by a constant infusion of money can lawlessness be combated. And the group is huge – lawyers, court employees, police, prison guards, contractors that build prisons, alarm system companies, the parole system, psychologists and psychiatrists, drug treatment hospitals – the list is endless.

As a matter of comparison, be aware a small mid-western community experienced a rat infestation a century ago. The local town Council, in its wisdom, enacted a rat-removal ordinance offering to pay 25 cents for each rat-tail delivered to the city office. As expected, within a short time many people operated rat farms with the tails harvested for profit. And this is precisely what our criminal justice system now is – a giant rat-tail farm. Only a country as wealthy as ours can support such a system. A poorer nation must handle crime as reality requires: summary courts, abbreviated appeals, minimally equipped and staffed prisons, and an inmate population which pays for its keep by actual hard labor –  in short, criminals dealt with as the undesirable nuisance to society they are.

We, on the other hand, maintain a labyrinth wherein the criminal constitutes a valuable asset, and where the meting out of justice and protection of the citizen ceases to be a primary goal. The law-breaker is peripheral to all this, of course, as influential political and economic groups compete for the benefits. In my view, the system operates primarily to distribute spoils, with little concern for its effect on crime. Under these circumstances it’s clear why law enforcement agencies and legislative bodies assume the stances they do. As no real action can be taken to address problems – let alone resolve them – public officials simply placate the public by faking it. Embarrassed by crime, legislatures regularly increase the severity of punishment. At the same time, disturbed by the administration of the process, the appellate courts seek to reinforce civil rights by tightening evidentiary rules. We are clearly making the worst of both worlds.

One other part of the problem is, as a society we’re undecided as to who the prisons shall house, and for what purpose. This institutionalized schizophrenia is nowhere near resolution and contributes to a massive increase in inmate population. Of even greater significance is the polarizing effect on the law-enforcement community. Only a courageous governor will dare resist the influence of a powerful prison-guard union. The ability of such groups to lobby aggressively is something with which every aspiring office-seeker must reckon. It is no longer a matter of the tail wagging the dog – in reality the dog and the tail have changed places. It’s painfully clear prisons now exist more to provide employment and benefits than to house criminals.

How shall things be resolved? In all likelihood there’ll be no resolution until the criminal problem in America ceases to be viewed from the customary standpoint of punishment, deterrence, rehabilitation, and warehousing – all approaches requiring additional money. Only when we as a society begin to make elimination of criminality the primary goal will there be a pragmatic approach to the problem. Exactly what this means in practical terms is open to dispute. There’s a risk, of course, of creating the sort of structure operating during the waning years in the Soviet Union. At that time novelist and historian Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn described Soviet justice as a garbage disposal system judged exclusively by its efficiency. However without embracing at least a portion of this concept, all we will see is a continuation of business as usual.

In the final analysis, we as a civilized community must learn to distinguish between persons involved in self-destructive activities we will tolerate, and felons to be dealt with harshly. Once we make this distinction, the latter should then be treated as suggested by the eighteenth century King of Prussia, Frederick II: “For infamous fellows we shall want infamous punishments.”




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