Some protesters blocked I-93 yesterday to remind us all about the tragic deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Their campaign has grabbed a lot of attention, but the protest messages have focused on race and skewed interpretations of the facts. In response, I would like to offer up a clear solution that would prevent deaths while maintaining the rule of law going forward.
Before you scroll down to see my proposed solution, try to put aside the arguments that you may have heard about race, prejudice, and controversial details of the case. Consider the possibility that an entire society could be so caught up in drama that we failed to see the forest for the trees.
The big picture is that our laws are based on a system of excessive punishment for minor sins. Many people believe that no crime should go unpunished, and that heavy handed punishments for small crimes will prevent larger crimes. This notion, sometimes implemented as a Broken Window Policy or Stop-and-Frisk Policy, was an experiment in human behavioural psychology that has turned out to have unintended consequences.
Michael Brown was suspected of stealing cigarillos and possibly blocking traffic. Eric Garner was suspected of stealing by breaking cigarette tax law and possibly loitering. These are bad behaviours, but in reality they are no big deal.
Some of you will immediately think that it is heresy to say any crime is “no big deal.” If that is you, then please take a deep breath and reconsider whether you want to support laws that cause small crimes to escalate to the level of deadly force.
When faced with arrest, both Michael Brown and Eric Garner had been conditioned to expect to be physically pushed down, handcuffed, held for hours, made to fill out numerous forms, stripped of their clothes and other belongings, locked in a poorly air-conditioned cell, fed low quality food, delayed receipt of medications and medical care, forced to post bail or remain locked up, forced to attend a court hearing, then either further imprisoned or excessively fined, and they would have a public record of shame to follow them for the rest of their lives.
The solution is simply to match the severity of punishments to the severity of crimes. These men should have received a fine on the order of a traffic ticket. A small financial crime, on the order of tens of dollars, should illicit only a relatively small financial penalty. For example, the fine could be capped at ten times the amount stolen plus a reasonable processing fee. More importantly, these men should not have had to fear arrest, because petty theft should not be an arrestable offence. The fear of excessive punishment was the key element that triggered their defensiveness, anger, and eventual bad decisions that led to their deaths.
The cops were merely stuck in the middle between abusively harsh laws and two desperately poor men. Reasonably limit the penalties for small crimes, especially crimes borne out of poverty, and these kinds of tragedies will eventually stop happening.