Tuesday, April 12, 2011

On Dog Fighting: Crime, Punishment, and Transformation

A friend on Twitter passed along an article from the Philadelphia Inquirer about dog fighting. The article itself wasn't particularly interesting or groundbreaking. Dog fights are arranged every day around the country and scores of people are watching at any given point in the day. Authorities investigate tips and make arrests. Courts pass judgement and convict people on animal cruelty charges.

The article goes on to say:

Marano said the SPCA investigates about 100 complaints of animal fighting per month. She said most of the cases involve dog fighting and cock fighting.

"Our mission, besides recovering these animals and putting a stop to this, is letting people know that it's a crime not just to fight dogs, but to attend a dogfight," Marano said.

Yes. It's a crime. Yes, in our society we use the criminal justice system to punish offenders (ostensibly to reform them) and to deter other from committing similar crimes. Does this really work? Does our system of punishing offenders effect change on either the person who committed the crime or others who are considering committing similar crimes?

No, not really. It is well beyond the scope of a short blog post to evaluate the research on the effectiveness of the criminal justice system. It would probably be more accurate if we all agreed to the purpose that prisons have in our lives. They make us feel safer. That satisfy our need for retribution.

A simple look at the statistics is stunning. According to the U.S. bureau of Justice Statistics, there are 7,225,800 people (2009 data) that were on probation, in jail or prison, or on parole. That number accounts for 3.1% of the adults in the United States. Viewed in another way, the 2,297,400 people who were incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails makes our incarceration rate of 748 inmates per 100,000 U.S, residents. This means that 0.75% of our population is incarcerated--the highest total documented prison and jail population in the world.

We suffer a disconnect in our public discourse. On one hand, we label violence as abhorrent. We've delineated certain forms of violence as crimes that deserve punishment. In other ways, we glorify violence. We gather around the proverbial forum and enjoy the public spectacle created by some forms of culturally approved violence. We can't have it both ways.

How do we really make our world a world in which there isn't dog fighting? We transform ourselves--we strive to create a world in which we don't simultaneously abhor and yet glorify violence. We treat each other with dignity and respect. We learn to cooperate--even with those we don't agree with. Most importantly, we treat those who are most despised (those who have committed crimes) with humanity. That does not mean we condone their offences, or allow them to continue to offend. It does not mean that we "forgive and forget" or "turn the other cheek." We find ways to hold them accountable, demand restorative justice, and keep people out of society who are a risk to society.

Only then can we hope to create a world in which dog fighting doesn't exist.

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