Crime, Punishment, and the Gray Area in Between
There is a computer in China that uses a software progra m to determine prison sentences. You enter the details of a case, and the computer produces a punishment. Critics of the machine argue that understanding specifi c criminal cases requires wisdom and nuance — not code. And yet the certainty of the software-driven appro ach has its appeal since so much of criminality is uncertain. Take for example notions about who commits crimes. It’s startling to think perpetrators could be our friends. Our neighbors. People who look like us. But criminals hide in plain sight all the time. They hide behind suits in government buildings. They hide behind badge s. They hide behind firewalls and anonymous usernames. After the window is broken, the bank account emptie d, the stereo shoplifted, the bribe accepted, the line crosse d, many walk free. Some who are caught, reform. Some who escap e build their own prisons, chaining themselves to guilt and regret . Others just shrug it off. People do stuff. Stuff happens. Whatever. In these stories, we’re reminded that crime and punishment are riddled with gray areas, and that the moral compasses of people — even those trying to do right — usually point in different directi ons. And like the Dostoevsky novel Crime and Punishment conveys, the forces that have the chance to truly change us might not be longer prison sentences, stronger bars, or harder labor, but rather enough compassion and education to help someone pull themselves up by those ever-difficult bootstraps.
SPRING 2011 / LSA Magazine
Published on May 10, 2011