Guilty? Crime, Punishment and the Changing Face of Justice


Book Information

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt November 2014
Character-Building Curriculum

"And I was shocked to see the mistakes of each generationwill just fade like a radio station if you drive out of range”-- Ani DiFranco

" isn't always easy to decide which behavior should be criminalized.  Moreover, the line between what to criminalize and what not to criminalize might not always be drawn in the right place."

GUILTY? CRIME, PUNISHMENT, AND THE CHANGING FACE OF JUSTICE is an extraordinary book for ages ten and up about the evolution of what is considered right and wrong, both on an individual and societal level.  It is also  about punishment and about the tension between the need for due process and the desire for an efficiently functioning criminal justice system.

The author begins her story by laying out several historical situations  in which one person took advantage of another, and then shows how in some cases--such as a customer taking advantage of a bank teller's error--there have long been laws that make such opportunistic behavior illegal.  In other cases of opportunistic behavior, some of which are logically comparable tothe  bank teller situation, there are no laws to protect a victim.  Therefore, this behavior becomes a civil matter and is perceived as an individual issue,  rather than a criminal matter in which The People have an interest.The author moves on to some of the most unwise laws that have ever been enacted in our country.  One, is Louisiana's Separate Car Act, under which Homer Plessy was prosecuted in 1892 for sitting in a Whites Only railroad car, leading to what is arguably the stupidest Supreme Court decision in American  history.  Another is Public Law 503, under which thousands  of Americans of Japanese descent on the West Coast were forced out of their  homes and into internment camps during World War II.  The author notes that  in ourlooking back "it's easy to see the error.  It's harder, though, for  people to see their own mistakes." She details a more-recent example:  Muslims who were unjustly imprisoned by the U.S. in recent years at Guantanamo  Bay.  Here's another sterling example provided by the author of how things change over time:

"In 1868 in Wilkes County, North Carolina, Elizabeth Rhodes accused her husband of beating her.  She brought charges against him for assault and battery.

"Elizabeth's husband, A. B. Rhodes, freely admitted to beating his wife,but defended himself by explaining that she had said something to him that he hadn't liked.  The problem was, he couldn't remember exactly what she had said.

"The evidence presented at his trial showed that he struck her three  times with a switch about the size of one of his fingers but not as large as histhumb.  The size of the switch was important because under common law asunderstood by this particular court, a man could legally beat his wife if the switch he used was no bigger than his thumb -- the so-called rule of thumb."

Yup.  He was found not guilty of assault and battery because the  switch he beat her with was smaller in diameter than his thumb.  On appeal, the state's Supreme Court opined, in part: "'...The question is  therefore plainly presented, whether the court will allow conviction of the  husband for moderate correction of the wife without provocation.'"  These  not-so-enlightenedmen concluded that this was a matter better left to the  household"government" and that the court shouldn't meddle in family affairs. Such examples of how things change over time are essential for enlightening young people, who are in the process of developing morally.  It will causethem to recognize that criminal statutes are often the  result of a political process and underlying cultural attitudes that are not  always grounded in what we would consider to be moral.

It certainly makes  one recognize why there are important historical examples of citizens protesting  and consciously disobeying laws that they do not believe to be moral.“What is morally wrong or dangerous is not always criminalized, and what is criminalized is not always dangerous or morally wrong.  Retribution assumes that people get the punishment they deserve when they break a law, but if crimes are culturally determined, punishment does not necessarily fall on people who are bad.”

GUILTY? which packs so many ideas into a hundred-plus pages, is a bookthat could well be mind-blowing to the thoughtful young reader who is ready to move beyond the black-and-white notion that a particular act is wrong simply  because it is illegal.  And, conversely, it might well raise questions about what should be illegal that isn’t, such as children dying in war zonesand  being dismissed as “collateral damage” or dying in poverty because ofan  underlying cultural attitude that it’s not society’s problem to carefor the  most vulnerable among us.

The recent horrific news about a “botched” execution, is one  more reasonwhy this is a perfect time for discovering and sharing  this book.

978-0-544-14596-1  Ages  10 and up  144 pages  Recommended by:  Richie  Partington,  MLIS  Richie's Picks _

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