Sunday, November 6, 2016

How Much Should the Legal System Respond to Public Outrage?

“After all the outrage on social media over the not guilty verdict (or light sentence), we’re going to have a re-trial. Don’t worry, folks. We’ll get ‘im!”

Does anyone actually wish the system worked this way?

I’ll be fair and say that a few people (very few) are thoughtful and nuanced enough to actually ask for some kind of policy change or concrete structural reform amidst their outrage. And I’ll generously grant that this is what many others are asking for, if sometimes inarticulately or unintelligibly. But I get the strong sense that commenters are asking for a *specific verdict* to be reconsidered. Even if they are just asking for similar future cases to be decided differently, I’m very uneasy with the notion that judges and juries are considering “social media backlash” as a factor in their decision-making, and in such a way that it would result in a harsher verdict than otherwise. I don't like the idea of individual cases being decided so as to even out some societal injustice. 

If I have a tin ear here, and all the outrage is really just a call to even out the underlying injustices, then I apologize for this irrelevant post. It's just that much of what I see and hear doesn't support this more reasonable interpretation of what's being demanded.

You can say things like “But this story highlights a more general trend of blah blah blah…” But this is wrong, because no one story indicates an overall trend. It’s just one data-point. Even if we got all the policies right and made all the right institutional changes, you’d *still* have the occasional blunder, the bone-headed decision by a judge, or the head-scratching verdict by a jury, or the woeful mishandling of a motorist by a police officer. We’d still have the occasional outrage-inducing blunder-story, even in this “perfected policy” world, and we’d have run out of policy levers to address them. Perfection in the sense of eliminating all errors is not possible. Perfection in the sense of minimizing errors is possible. (Or at any rate minimizing the costs of errors within the constraints of acceptable error-prevention costs.) I would advise anyone reading to not give too much credit to any one news story, even if you think you’re noticing a “pattern.” You simply can’t paste headlines together into a coherent worldview. 

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