I used to think like that when I was a younger person.  Oh for the good old days.  The world was simpler then.  The definitions of right and wrong were very clear. Consequences were swift and understood. If you were a “good” person you did “good” things.  However, being a good person might also mean conforming to the culture of the day.  A good person might have been right even if a rule he was following was bad.  This was demonstrated by slavery in the US and in the Mai Lai massacre in Viet Nam. 

If you were a “bad” person, it often meant you would eventually encounter a negative consequence such as being arrested or losing a job.    But, as a young person, thinking of an idyllic simpler lifestyle, I failed to think about the negative elements of the earlier cultures such as the lack of rights for women and minorities.  That was a young person’s simple dream without complexity and I am now older and hopefully wiser.

Our jurisprudence system has evolved over time as well.  In previous centuries, rich families could pay fees so their wayward offspring could evade the consequences of bad behavior. Today’s criminal justice system takes into account extenuating and mitigating circumstances.  Let us no forget that a well-heeled family can hire the best attorney to ensure that their offspring can still escape the consequences of their unmanageable behavior. That is still an ethical dilemma as we saw in the Ethan Couch, Affluenza case, who was too rich to know right from wrong.     

Courts can take into consideration the ability of the accused to distinguish between right and wrong, whether or not the accused has mental defects and the ability of the accused to conform his behavior to the law.  We must wrestle with the idea that someone who has committed a heinous crime may have been an abused child that grew up thinking that violence was the only way to solve problems or may be psychotic and not in touch with the real world at the time of the crime or the hearing.   

So how culpable are James Holmes, Adam Lanza, or Seng Hui Cho?  These and other cases cause us to wrestle with ethical dilemmas that are pushing changes in our criminal justice system.  Attorneys, Judges, and Correctional and Police officers are recognizing that people and situations are much more complex than they look on the surface and that the old ways may no longer be sufficient in a complex society with multifaceted ideas of right aand wrong behavior on both sides.  

There are nuances that we must take into account in making every decision about law breaking, arrests, convictions, punishment, and rehabilitation.  For instance, can a juvenile be given the death penalty?  Should lethal force be used on a non-violent arrestee involved in a non-violent crime?  I don’t know, but it can create an ethical dilemma which must be made in the flash of a moment.

Adobe Creative Cloud License  File #:  13268166  Author:  michaeljung
Source: Adobe Creative Cloud License File #: 13268166 Author: michaeljung

While the criminal justice system is evolving, is there an underlying theme of those in power or money are right and those that are not in power or are poor are wrong?  Let’s note the ethical dilemmas which have arisen while keeping our streets safe and the effects of the investigations following suspected excessive use of force against unarmed minorities. There are examples such as Freddie Grey, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner.  Fewer than 1 in 3 persons of color killed by police in 2014 were suspected of violent crimes (http://mappingpoliceviolence.org/).  This has probably always been the case, but what is new is the examination of the decisions made in a quick and heated minute by people in power which affect people not in power.  Right and wrong are very complex ideas, but often have to be decided quickly requiring simplified thinking.

Simplicity allows us to think in black and white terms and place people who are very complex into broad categories of good and bad/right and wrong.  The solution to complex problems will also be complex.  So while it may be enchanting to think about going back to the good old days, the world is complex and fraught with ethical dilemmas and simplistic thinking will no longer do the job.  Not all poor minorities of color living in the inner cities are "bad" and not all the rich, Christian whites living in the suburbs are "good." Not all Muslims are terrorists and not all Hispanics are illegal. Determining a person's future risk for future dangerousness, as I have said many times, is a very complex task and cannot be determined by one's religion or ethnic group.  Only complex answers with many nuances and moving parts will solve problems that also have many nuances and moving parts.  

Be sure to read the following responses to this post by our bloggers:

Back to the Good Ole Days - Part 2 is a reply by Kathryn Seifert Ph.D.

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