Saturday, March 27, 2010

In which maybe he did, and maybe he didn't.

I overheard a conversation recently among students. One of them had been accused of bringing a gun to school -- throughout the conversation he insisted he hadn't, and the other kids seemed to believe him. When he was called to an administrator's office, she couldn't find conclusive proof that he'd done so -- but since she still believed he had, she suspended him for five days.

I'm not sure how confident I am in this version of the facts of the story, but I think it's worth talking about because it showcases a really common tendency among people tasked with enforcing rules of all kinds. There are often cases where any such person is not able to completely ascertain what's happened, and so they have to proceed based on partial evidence. Especially in cases like this one, such people really want to show that they're taking this issue seriously -- and they feel like that means they have to do something about it.

A really common response is to figure out what you think the probability is that the person did what they're accused of, and multiply that probability by the normal response -- so, if you're 60% sure, you apply 60% of the punishment (or 60% of the stern talking-to, or the counseling or rehab -- 60% of whatever your response would be if you were sure they had done it). From the perspective of the administrator, this makes a certain kind of emotional sense -- if there's a 60% chance that a gun was brought to school, you probably have about 60% of the worry and anger you would if you were completely sure, and so this level of response seems appropriate.

But from the perspective of the accused, either it happened or it didn't. And either way, they're getting the wrong message. If they did it, your response is 60% as strenuous as it should be (working from the assumption that you would give the appropriate response if they had done whatever it is they're accused of -- which, of course, isn't generally a good assumption). If they didn't, they're being maligned for nothing. Either way, especially if this happens repeatedly, they begin to realize that it ultimately didn't matter whether they had done it or not: what matters in terms of the response is entirely about the administrator's subjective state of certainty. Which is exactly not the message you want to send.

On the other hand, the other options aren't exactly good either -- no matter the mechanism by which your perception of what happened turns into a response, your response is based on your perception, which is again encouraging the belief that what actually happened doesn't matter.

Fundamentally, I think, any system of reconciliation that relies on punishment as its path to forgiveness is going to run into this problem. When you rely on punishment, you create incentives for perpetrators to conceal their wrongs -- which is going to create these types of damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't scenarios.

Let's suppose for a moment that, in the abstract, punishment of the guilty is an aid to the resolution of conflicts. I don't think it is, but let's imagine. Even so, it seems unlikely that punishment is as important to the resolution of conflicts as the ascertaining of what happened -- because our attempts to resolve conflicts without knowing who's done what always run into the sorts of issues described above. And since a general practice of punishment has the effect of making it very difficult to determine with any certainty what happened, because it creates incentives for people to conceal the truth, it seems like even so we have to abandon punishment in order to have any hope of an effective general procedure of conflict resolution.

The ultimate aim of the criminal justice system -- and especially efforts at juvenile justice, inside or outside of schools -- is reconciliation of the accused with the victim and with society, whether we're willing to say it out loud or not. Our goal is to make people feel able to return to their normal lives after a wrong has been done. We're never going to be able to do that if people are afraid of the process of reconciliation.

1 comment:

  1. The other angle on this is "what can you do as an administrator to increase your certainty about what actually happened?" There are persuasive counterarguments from other perspectives but within the "choice of action -> development of perception -> assignment of punishment -> learning" framework you've set out here, there's a super compelling argument for security cameras in schools.

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