Compassion and Sociopathy

 Posted on February 04, 2008 in Uncategorized

There's an interesting argument discussion at Life at the Harris County CJC about the role of compassion in prosecution. Commenter PJ says:

We don't need righteous DA's doing "battle" with "criminals." We need people serving the public fairly, with at least some degree of understanding and compassion from whence "criminals" come.

Commenter anonymous c responds:

You think that we need ADAs who have "understanding and compassion" for the criminals. That's utterly absurd!It would totally upset the whole idea of true Justice, which is that the ADAs, with compassion and understanding towards the victims, fight vigourously and tirelessly to convict and that the DEFENSE lawyers, with the understanding and compassion towards the criminals that you speak of, fight vigorously and tirelessly to acquit. In the middle of that battle is where, ideally, Justice is born. That's how it works.I don't want to live in a county with touchy-feely, peace and love ADAs and I highly doubt that you would, either. It's just not reality.

Anonymous c presents the popular public misconception of the prosecutor's role. The public thinks that prosecutors are fighting for the victims, and that their goal is to convict. As a result, many of the voters think they want prosecutors without compassion for the people they are prosecuting.

Compassion, like mercy or grace, is not something that is earned. We don't treat people with compassion because of who they are, but because of who we are. We have a name for people without compassion: we call them sociopaths. Compassion given only to people who "deserve" it? It's not compassion at all.

The police aren't always right; often they screw up. Complaining witnesses aren't always truthful; often they lie. There's often no benefit to anyone in convicting the accused. Sometimes the accused is the true victim, sometimes everyone is a victim, but in most cases there's no victim at all. In most cases prosecutors aren't even pretending to be fighting for victims, but for the government.

Sometimes cases need to be dismissed; sometimes the law's penalty is unduly harsh; sometimes people's illegal conduct is mitigated by the good they have done or by the harm they have suffered. Only a sociopath would never feel compassion for anyone accused of a crime. But that's what the voters, scared mindless of crime, think they want from their prosecutors. And too often that (or a simulation thereof) is what the voters - and their sons, husbands, fathers, and brothers - get.

(For a former prosecutor's view of the prosecutorial mentality, see this post at Defense Perspective.)

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