Justice

justice — The "settling of accounts" for past misdeeds. Justice and our justice system are based on the premise that a grievance of the past can be undone by an opposite action in the present—which is largely an illusion.

Justice is roughly "an eye for an eye," although we aren't supposed to say that. Murderers get life in prison. Thieves lose their freedom. Injured people get compensated for what they lost (plus all their "pain and suffering," of course). Justice is usually crude and tends toward brutish overkill. It may deter some future crimes and address our emotional need for retribution, but it rarely does much to repair underlying problems.

You should not expect much justice from Family Court, which is more concerned with repair and rehabilitation. Family Court tries to give distressed people a way to move on with their lives, a goal that is often incompatible with justice.

Here are some of the miscarriages of justice you may find in Family Court:

  • Parents who lose their children due to drug-related neglect are rarely prosecuted criminally, even though what they did is against the law. Instead, the court works with the parents to try to get them off drugs.

  • Juveniles convicted of serious crimes (short of murder) usually receive far more lenient sentences than adults who commit the same offenses. While in custody, there is a genuine effort to "rehabilitate" a youth and not merely punish him. When they reach 21, their records are sealed, as though the crime never happened.

  • A divorce judge is not too interested in the parties' accusations against each other. If your spouse stabbed you with a knife, that is a matter for criminal court, not here. Regardless of who did what to whom, community property will be split 50/50 and alimony and child support will be awarded according to accepted formulae. The most volatile issue, child custody, will be decided at the whim of the judge, with little opportunity for appeal. (See judicial discretion.)
People coming to Family Court expecting justice may be sadly disappointed. There is little justice here, but occasionally a life may be turned around, a wound may be sewn back together, or a child may find a good home.

The alternative to justice is problem solving. You want to find the underlying problem and address it, rather than just punishing the overt behavior. This is more complicated than justice but more effective in the long run.

While Family Court might not give you justice, it can give you a workable solution to whatever problem brought you here. It may not be the best solution, but it is a solution, which is probably the most you can expect from any government agency. You got yourself into a jam—something you couldn't handle yourself—and the court is trying to get you out with as little bloodshed as possible. You should be grateful for whatever solution you get.

Who Needs Justice Anyway?

If someone kills a member of your family, presumably justice would be served by sending that person to the electric chair. However, as victims often point out at sentencing, no amount of punishment can bring back the loved one. Why, then, do they usually push for the maximum sentence? Whether the perpetrator receives the death penalty or is acquitted on a technicality has no affect on the past. Killing the killer or sending him to prison for life doesn't really solve anything, but for some reason it helps the survivors sleep at night. If they get an eye for an eye, they feel some "closure" and think the world has been fixed.

A more practical concern is whether this person is going to kill again. Although this factor is considered in criminal sentencing, it involves a whole different kind of reasoning than the legal one. Redemption is much more complicated than justice. You have to consider the circumstances of the crime, the frame of mind of the perpetrator and whether he has already been changed by what has happened. You have to see the whole picture of his life, not just the events on the night in question. Sometimes effective redemption involves not punishing the perpetrator even when justice says you should.

Why does it make people feel better when they afflict the same pain on others that they have received themselves? They seem to believe that punishment will set things right in the world. It is God's justice, they think, where all sins are accounted for in the end and every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

That's not the only kind of morality, however, and even God is supposed to have a broader view. The Christian God, as I understand Him, could even forgive Hitler.

Forgiveness. That's something justice can't deal with.

There is a lot more to life than settling accounts. Someone has to build those accounts to begin with. Justice, even if essential to society, is a tearing-down process. If an unfairness exists, then one party is cut down to the level of the other. Justice doesn't build anything. It doesn't create love or leadership or make bureaucracies work. It doesn't give people inspiration. The best it can do is excise a cancer by removing a lung or a limb.

Justice solves problems with sledgehammers. Got a problem? Hit it with a sledgehammer. Someone commits a crime? Hit them with a sledgehammer. Sledgehammers work for some jobs, but you can't build anything with them.

Society relies on the illusion of justice to keep people in line, and it works—kind of. People don't drive too fast because they are afraid of getting a ticket. That's not the same, however, as driving a reasonable and safe speed based on the conditions of the road and weather. Justice never gets that subtle.

People like justice because it is easy and, in the short run, relative cheap. Just hang 'em from a tree and justice is done. Real repair is a lot less satisfying and is much harder to sell to the electorate.

"Spare the rod and spoil the child," says Joe Voter, demanding, as he usually does, harsher sentences for everyone, including juveniles. Joe Voter, if you haven't noticed, is an idiot, and our justice system to a certain extent reflects that idiocy. In criminal court, the demand for retribution usually takes precedence over the long-term good of society.

Only one part of the court system has escaped: Family Court. It operates in its own little world according to its own rules, in secrecy or equivalent obscurity, and justice is quietly ignored when appropriate.

The events of Family Court rarely make it into the news media, because they are too small and personal. Who cares about divorce if there isn't a celebrity or murder-for-hire involved? Almost everyone will pass through Family Court at some point in their lives, no doubt with some frustration, but it is all forgotten quickly and is replaced in consciousness by the sensational crimes at the big courthouse downtown.

Occasionally, Joe Voter may appear in Family Court as a victim of juvenile crime. He demands, as usual, the maximum sentence for the perpetrator, but the court will probably not comply. Instead of prison, the defendant may get probation and counseling, or he may get to go to "camp" in the mountains.

"You call that justice?" mutter the victim as he leaves the courtroom.

No, it's not justice. It's something else.



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