Who Deserves Mercy?

What strikes me about the Stanford rape case, secondary to the blatant disregard for the concerns of the victim or future potential victims, is the sort of disparities in criminal justice that this case calls our attention to (especially disparities in sentencing as it pertains to race, finances, social/celebrity status, sports). This reveals striking and shameful realities about what we value most in society. In this stark way,  we are made aware of the significant, consequential, and reprehensible judgments passed on who is most likely to have a valuable future. Who has a life that most deserves a second chance?
Such judgments are passed, whether consciously or unconsciously, based upon various biases (race one of the most significant) and social affinities that lead us to value certain identity markers or achievements as more valuable in themselves, as well as to society, than others and other factors/values. This is, in part, why we now have non-violent black, poor, male offenders sentenced to long prison terms while someone like this violent sexual assailant is sentenced to 6 (but actually 3) months. The future of the white, wealthier, male, athlete is valued more highly than the average poor, non-athlete, man or woman of color. Brock’s significance as an athlete, his socio-economic status, his whiteness, makes him more valuable and more deserving of leniency or mercy. The damning revelation is our valuation of these identities and achievements as the sorts of things we want to preserve and celebrate and reward as things in themselves that define us as a society. Idols, if you will: Athleticism, wealth, white, male.

I am not simply speaking of un-earned identities and privileges, like being white in a society that sees color, but also privileges and markers that are earned. Many privileges are a combination of something both bequeathed and earned: Brock, on the one hand, certainly worked hard as a swimmer and earned some notoriety for it, but the same time, families with means are more likely to have access to opportunities to engage in such activities. Similarly, although he didn’t create the automatic value our culture places on academic achievements but he does benefit from it. But I digress: Even so-called ‘earned’ privileges are not, in my mind, very strong bases for determining the ultimate value of one’s future and whether leniency is appropriate given other pressing interests such as justice and public safety. The satisfaction and safety of the victim and potential future victims, the level of remorse and self-awareness, the level of punishment needed to encourage a sense of responsibility and desire for change, are better guides. Yet, these other markers serve as powerful bases for such judgments because of what symbols and identities our society decides are valuable.

White, rich, socially significant, are the features that are often judged as most valuable and worthwhile in our criminal justice system. Those who may deserve mercy, or at least to have the ability to rise to the occasion for reform, restitution, and a second chance, do not receive such when they lack such capital. They lack, in many eyes, a future worth preserving. And for those who should be held accountable and restrained from causing further harm, but20699620022_eb701a8717_z who possess such identity markers, they are allowed to live without significant boundaries, and to live without the necessity of taking personal responsibility for their actions. They can continue to exist in a fantasy-world (except it’s not a fantasy, we keep creating this world of their/our fantasies) where the loss of some of the privileges associated with these identities feels like an injustice that should mitigate the amount of justice served to the victim and the safety and wholeness afforded for society (i.e., ‘me losing my athletic career is significantly unjust even in light of this horrific act against a person’s body and dignity’). Their possession of these things that we so highly value becomes more important than that which they have threatened.
All this can occur because the criminal justice system agrees and imitates society’s sense of what are very valuable, praiseworthy, society-flourishing, features to possess. It protects the sort of society we want, in our deep and sinful predispositions, to have. Brock is allowed to still have something of a future, despite the future he assaulted and indelibly marked, because his future is white, athletic, male, and rich.
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