Stoicism and Criminal Justice

In a world struggling to balance technological advancements and morals, stoicism seems to be rebirthing. Societies are in need of rules that are virtue-based and they also want justice to be applied fairly. Strangely enough, the stoic way of thinking is, to many, as applicable and relevant in today’s world, as it was about two millenniums ago (Stephens, 2000). Living a good passion-free life, in accord with nature sounds appealing. Stoics believed that one cannot become just if they behave unjustly or cowardly (Banks, 2012 p.304). They also believed that people can behave virtuously if they were led by rational thoughts, which in turns would make them take rational decisions (Stephens, 2000). However, although all about Stoicism sounds almost ideal, the biggest challenge is how one can reach virtue and live a life of complete rationality.  To Stoics, if only one could withdraw and stay away from passions and desires; hence emotion, one could become just and virtuous, in other words, wise or “sage” as they used to say (Banks, 2012 p. 303). Ethics and criminal justice are closely related and people expect justice practitioners to be of high morality, perhaps higher than anyone else, so they infuse confidence to the rest of society (Worley &Barua, 2009 p.861). For that reason, stoicism might sound like an appealing theory to apply in the criminal justice system of modern societies.

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Stoicism teaches about making the right decision. If one has the power over events that occur in life and might affect their judgment, then all will be good (Banks, 2012 p.303). So, basically, good and evil is up to the individual. If that individual is freed from the influence of events that could as well pervade their moral view, then those individuals would have reached the high morals expected from a criminal justice practitioners, be they police officers, judges or anyone else involved. It is commonly known that criminal justice professionals reach a point in their career when they need to exercise the use of discretion, (Worley &Barua, 2009 p.861). Criminal justice practitioners may need to take significant decisions in regards a specific ethical dilemma and their emotions might get in the way, blocking their decisions. To them, Stoicism can offer a good way out.

The Criminal Justice System is defined by the National Center for Victims of Crimes (2008) as a set of agencies and processes established by governments to control crime and impose penalties on those who violate laws.  The essence of the Criminal Justice system is service and protection of society. If the Criminal Justice System is to carry out its mission of service and protection of society, it is imperative that the people who are part of it are professionals of high moral character and ethics, at all times (Worley and Barua, 2009). The police should fight and control crime as a public service to the community.  The criminal is seen as just somebody who goes astray (Pollock, 2007).  The principles and practices of Stoicism would be very compatible with the Criminal Justice System for two reasons.  First, its adherence to high moral standards and integrity of the person goes with the “need for ethical codes and leadership, as well as pride in their profession and the spirit it upholds” (Worley and Barua, 2009).  On the other hand, being stoic, hardened, and emotionless protects the law officer, whether he is a policeman, a detective, a lawyer, a judge, or a prison officer, from being emotionally entangled on the consequences of his actions while enforcing the law or carrying out justice.

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The Criminal Justice System is riddled with decisions every step of the way, many of them moral in nature.  The law officer has to consider the consequences of every action because of the very nature of their calling as protectors of the community.  From the moment a crime is reported, the police officer has to see to it that the rights of the suspect are protected.  Sometimes the manner of arresting brings harm to the suspect, especially when there is resistance.  The stoic will not hesitate to hurt the suspect who has been “caught in the act” but tries to elude arrest.  On the other hand, just because they have a preponderance of evidence -which however cannot be presented in court- some investigators may arrange some evidence to be “found conveniently” to warrant an arrest.   The prosecutor and/or the defense lawyer use every trick they have to get a conviction or an acquittal, as the case may be, though it can work unfairly to somebody’s disadvantage, because they truly believe that the defendant is guilty/innocent. The judge, following his clear conscience, metes out a sentence which he believes is most proportionate to the crime, even if it will outlast the defendant’s lifetime. Finally the correction, probation, and/or parole officer operates on the principle that the prisoner has his rights to constructive citizenship (Eaton, S 2008), but follows prison rules and policies to the letter at all times.

However, Stoicism, when carried out in extreme, will defeat the very purpose of the Criminal Justice System, which is to protect the individual and the community. Stoicism will be the law enforcer’s shield as he carries out his duties day in and day out, because no matter what he does, there will always be consequences, some of which may be detrimental to some parts of society.  Stoicism will help him steel himself against these feelings, regrets, and anxieties.

Ideally, the Criminal Justice System that exists in all societies should uphold the dignity of the person, even if he is a criminal. Unfortunately, this kind of system does not exist in some societies. Some are controlled by the rich and powerful to the detriment of the poor and the powerless (Burke 2013). This is where Stoicism can really come to the fore.  The stoic, truly believing that he is doing something good for himself, his family, or society, can deliberately look the other way, and engage in corruption. The drug lord can have a competitor investigated for drug trafficking.  The policeman or investigator can easily help him for the financial rewards that will bring economic relief for his family. In the name of the “search for the truth”, the victim may suffer from “secondary victimization” – first from the injury caused by the crime, and second from the injury coming from the criminal justice authorities in the course of their investigation. A classic example of this is the way rape victims are grilled by either, or both, the prosecuting and the defense lawyers (Wemmers, 2013). The judge can very easily render a decision that will benefit a conglomerate even if it will mean the laying off of hundreds of employees, for   the sake of the country’s economy.  The correction, probation, or parole officer can decide to implement stringent though inhumane policies in the name of penal reforms.

Read also Criminal Justice Framework

Maybe critics of Stoicism say that it is just a coping strategy (Stephens 2001), most probably to escape the negative emotions that go with unpleasant circumstances. Nevertheless, advocates of Stoicism are still able to function productively in society, particularly within the criminal justice system. The criminal justice system can be benefited by Stoic theories and together they can exist hand in hand like sparring partners in building and maintaining a secure and happy community for all, without taking anything into extremes;and the person is the key behind both of them.

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