Justice Is Local

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Portland, Maine

It’s interesting to think of justice as local, which it is and must be. But it’s easy to forget. We’re more likely to think of justice as “top down” with Congress, the Supreme Court, state legislatures and state courts grabbing the headlines. Each has a role, making the rules and interpreting them. Without them there would be no “Rule of Law”. Without the Rule of Law there would be chaos. Civilization as we know it would cease to exist. One need only travel to any number of foreign countries to experience this.

But laws do not necessarily equal justice, unless justice is defined narrowly as the consequence imposed as the result of a violation.

There are times when temperance is required. Times when the laws applied to a particular situation don’t really fit. Times when the consequences outweigh the seriousness of the conduct.

Last week I listened to a lawyer with fifty years of practice under his belt speak about the need for a re-writing of the Maine criminal code. He said it was last done in the ’70’s and it’s time again. Many of the laws on the books are antiquated and irrelevant. Times change and our laws need to change with them.

Just last night I was at a pizza joint / pub in downtown Portland. A group of five guys were making great music with their fiddles and acoustic guitars. During a break I spoke with the lead, a man in his sixties who makes violins during the day. He told me it’s against the law in Maine to have two stages with live music within a hundred feet of one another. He pointed across the street at a bar that also hosts musicians. Because the two establishments are less than a hundred feet away they can’t have music playing at the same time. Then he told me there’s another silly law which says a musician can’t stand up and have a beer in his hand. But if he sits down that’s ok. He said recently a local Cajun band was playing at the same pub and near the front window which looked out on the street. A police officer saw one of the band members standing up and with a drink in his hand. The band lost its gig and the proprietor was fined a thousand dollars.

These examples might seem petty but the point is that even with the best of laws, there must be temperance, there must be the exercise of reasonable discretion.

This is particularly true when it comes to kids. A sixteen year old may be as tall as an adult, may weigh as much or more, but he doesn’t have the brain of an adult. The neuroscientists are teaching us this. The risks the teenager takes, the decisions he makes to do or not do something, are not made with the aid of a mature brain. Compound that with what we know about early childhood trauma and we find ourselves with a canon of laws and a justice system not ideally suited to respond to the misbehavior of our youth.

That is why there must be the exercise of reasonable discretion. Sometimes law enforcement does it and sometimes it does not. The same is true of juvenile corrections officers and juvenile prosecutors. It’s easy to get frustrated with and angry at kids who commit offenses that, if they were eighteen, would be considered crimes. But we can’t ignore the science and we must be cognizant of the unintended consequences that can result when our schools and our justice systems label youth because of misbehavior.

Here in Maine there is something to be encouraged about. Communities are taking greater notice of kids caught up in our systems. Individuals are coming together to address the inequities and unfavorable outcomes. One thing being considered is the use of community review boards. Once in place, police officers will have the discretion to refer a teenager to a board of community members and professionals rather than to the formal system. The teenager, his or her parents, and members of the board will meet collaboratively, placing equal emphasis on the needs of the youth and the community’s need for accountability.

Justice is local. And because it’s local it’s best served when the community realizes it has a stake in its administration and in its outcomes. This is particularly true when the lives of our kids are at stake.

– Fred Van Liew