Friday, October 9, 2009

Criminal Justice (micro level: Polanski)

A few weeks ago, the 76-year-old French/Polish film director Roman Polanski was arrested in Switzerland, having been a fugitive from U.S. law enforcement since 31 years ago he skipped bail just before he was scheduled to be sentenced for the rape of a girl who was a few weeks away from her fourteenth birthday. As I write this, his lawyers are trying to prevent his extradition. Personally, I don't care all that much whether he ends up in prison or not, but this case provides an excellent opportunity to examine various aspects of incarceration, both in the U.S. and in general.

First of all, the reason I don't care all that much is that for me personally, prison should be about prevention: keeping those who are a danger to society locked up. If I'm reasonably confident that the person isn't a real threat to commit another crime, I can accept their not being put in prison if there's a reason to avoid it. Not that there aren't other reasons to keep people in prison, but for me, that's the important one. I do find it extremely unlikely, at his age and with his past, that he will repeat that or any other crime. (Except bail-jumping, which seems a very likely prospect; I couldn't help but be extremely amused to see his lawyer arguing for his release on bail from his current incarceration. Oh, yeah, good idea...)

One group of reactions to this event is highly instructive: the reaction of the film community and the French intelligentsia, which demanded Polanski's release and criticized the U.S. for pursuing the case to such an extent so long after the fact. The only way I can agree with this argument is in considering the notion that if Polanski were not such a prominent person, the U.S. probably would have lost interest. On the other hand, it is generally only prominent people who have the ability and resources to skip bail, flee to another country, and be accepted there without fear of extradition. If I represented the U.S. justice system, I would try very hard to apprehend all bail-jumpers, prominent or not.

Other than that, I find it highly interesting, and nearly mystifying, that so many prominent people are publicly defending a man who no one disputes raped a 13-year-old. I'm like, huh? Or, we could say, WTF? I would say to anyone who defended him, would you say the same thing if he'd raped and sodomized your 13-year-old daughter? If yes, I feel for your daughter. If no, why is your daughter entitled to more consideration than anyone else's?

I think perhaps the main reason they defend him is that, to put it simply, he's one of them. They know him, they like him, they identify with him. And since they do, they rationalize their attitudes. After all, you've probably already done a fair amount of rationalizing if you're friendly with a rapist. (Or if you voted to give him an Academy Award.) This is very human; people rationalize their actions every day, only not so visibly. Still, to those of us on the outside, it looks ridiculous and appallingly amoral. Just because you know him, he's charming, intelligent, and can have a good conversation over expensive wine and cheese, because he makes good movies... he shouldn't face prosecution like anybody else who commits a crime? I think these people really don't realize how bad they look, and I hear there's starting to be some backlash in France against the defend-Polanski reflex. A petition signed by over a hundred Hollywood types, requesting that the authorities drop the matter, has been indelibly contaminated by the signature of Woody Allen. The circumstances were very different–Allen's failing was to the best of my recollection a moral one, not a legal one–but the staggering irony of a man who slept with his longtime partner's 19-year-old adopted daughter defending Polanski hardly needs to be emphasized.

Now, the other question is, should he be sent to prison? At age 76, 31 years after the crime? What would be the purpose? Not, as I mentioned earlier, to protect society; France had obviously decided that its society needed no protection from him. Not to give the victim closure; she had publicly said that she had no desire to see him do time. The best argument I can think of would be deterrence, to let bail-jumpers know that they'll never be safe, and they'd better stay under their rock and never travel to another country, even one in which they'd previously been safe. I do think that bail-jumping should be considered a particularly heavy crime, since if everyone did it, there couldn't be a bail system, and some innocent people would languish in jail unnecessarily before and during their trials.

Now, I know each case is unique and deserves to be treated as such, and I've read that there were some irregularities in this one. Particularly, that the prosecution and the defense had worked out a time-served (six weeks) plea bargain, that the judge was going to torpedo. I've seen this characterized as the potential action of a publicity-hungry judge. This may be true; I'm given to understand that it's very rare for judges to interfere in plea deals. But couldn't it be that the judge was honestly disgusted by a rapist getting off with time served? Could a 'normal' defendant have gotten such a deal? I'd need to know more to judge it, and from this distance, I really can't. My best guess, though, is that especially in that time and place, Hollywood types got cushy deals when caught with their hand in the cookie jar, so to speak.

No comments:

Post a Comment