If you want to know how widespread the flu is in your community, ask your doctors and nurses. They’re on the front lines.
Likewise, if we want to gauge how sick society may be from a behavioral and moral standpoint, maybe we should ask the people on the front lines: those protecting us in the criminal justice system.
The Augusta Chronicle editorial staff did just that recently, interviewing two Augusta judges and our district attorney to find out what they see on a daily basis, and what it might say about our society.
We were struck immediately by two things: How deep they see the problems in our society getting, and how close to the surface it is when you ask them.
They weren’t just ready to talk about it. They were itching to.
“We see it every day,” District Attorney Ashley Wright says of the dysfunction crowding the courts.
“It’s very disturbing,” adds Superior Court Judge David Roper. “I feel like the country’s lost its moral compass. (The compass) is spinning – it’s not just pointing in the wrong direction; it’s pointing in 15 different directions.”
Superior Court Judge Danny Craig offers an even more ominous metaphor: that intact, highly functional, law-abiding, get-the-kids-to-school-and-soccer-practice families are on a melting glacier.
“Those people do not have any idea about the fact that their little glacier is melting,” Craig says. “I don’t know when they’re going to realize that their little glacier is melting, but we’re headed toward something cataclysmic.”
It’s not just the volume of criminals or the severity of their crimes, either; it’s also the underlying attitudes and behaviors that give rise to the rampant antisocial behavior these three professionals see. Numbers of crimes go up and down, but the pathology behind them only seems to be getting worse.
Craig, who’s been in the criminal justice system since 1979, including as Wright’s predecessor as chief prosecutor, says, “It’s very different. It’s extraordinarily different than it was in 1979. It is a society that has lost its way. There is a rapidly growing segment of our society that has no moral compass – coupled with extraordinarily inferior education that causes them to be unproductive and desperate.”
What these professionals in the trenches see is an unending parade of increasingly illiterate, immature, antagonistic and amoral folks who often not only can’t get along but consciously decide not to. In evidentiary recordings, Wright notes, “We hear men talking about their girlfriends in language that I wouldn’t use to describe a dog. And I’m not just talking about calling somebody a b----. They talk about women as objects. And they literally hop from bed to bed to bed to bed to bed. There’s a complete lack of respect.”
Of course, we’ve seen unprecedented erosion in the institutions of family, church and school – marriage is on the run, for instance, and church attendance that used to be 60 percent or more is now closer to 20 percent. In the absence of those institutions that used to give us moral guidance and day-to-day structure, increasing numbers of Americans are making it all up as they go along, with a coarse, anything-goes entertainment culture to add fuel.
“We’re 50 years after the ’60s, and we’re paying a huge price for the conduct of the ’60s,” Roper opines. “Conduct that for centuries, for millennia, was deemed immoral is now OK, or at least it’s tolerated. And the ‘tolerated’ is just as bad as saying it’s OK.”
“There’s a picture of everybody doing everything” on the Internet, Wright laments.
“This may be offensive to
some,” says Craig, “but the truth is, there is a significant segment of our population that does not have the intellectual filter to not emulate these violent videos and this violence they’re seeing in network programming.”
We have entertainment media, and increasingly broadcast news media, that scoff at and mock traditional American values and celebrate and promote selfish, shortsighted and destructive behaviors – while never quite explaining the consequences, which they make money reporting on.
Well, the rest of us need to discuss the consequences. The glacier is, indeed, melting.
The judges try to have that discussion – engaging defendants and litigants in conversation about how they even landed before a judge. Roper says he often asks recipients of vast public benefits where the money came from. Most can’t say, beyond the government.
“I have not had, I think, but one respondent who said it comes from tax money. You can see that there is not a logical process that takes them to that conclusion.”
Often, the litigants can’t accept they’ve done anything wrong. “They will sit there in the courtroom and justify” their behavior, Craig says. “I find it alarming. It shocks the conscience. And you think that, ‘Gosh, I just can’t imagine what your limits are, if in fact you’re able to rationalize this behavior.’
“Americans are the masters of rationalization.”
Like the family drunk, Craig says, society may have to hit bottom before we realize it’s there.
“You can’t really help that drunk until he hits rock bottom,” he says. “You just can’t. So the question really becomes, how much more of this tragedy will America stand before it will have hit rock bottom and decide that it’s just not going to tolerate it anymore?”
So, what to do?
The first step may be to have a broad-based community discussion among court, law enforcement, religious, educational and other officials. Both judges we talked to, for instance, decried the lack of education they see in their litigants, even discounting that many are dropouts.
“I don’t understand why our schools cannot teach children to read, write and do simple mathematics,” Roper told us. “I heard (President Obama) … talking about some high schools providing technical training. Wonderful! I would be real happy if the people before me could read, write and do simple mathematics. They can’t function without that in life.”
Litigants who enter their own pleadings in court, Craig says, can’t spell common words, can’t form sentences with a subject, verb and object, and have no command of punctuation whatsoever. Such failings can make even low-level employment problematic.
Craig has a surprising recommendation: that highly functioning, law-abiding citizens step up their game and pitch in even more.
If 150 million adult Americans spent three hours a day online or in front of a television – which Craig admits is probably a conservative figure – that would be 450 million hours each day. It only took 7 million man hours to erect the Empire State Building, Craig notes – meaning that we while away some 65 Empire State Buildings every day. And Craig’s view is that much of that time, particularly spent gossiping and carping online, is worse than wasted: It’s harmful and neglectful.
Maybe instead of sharing photos of our dinner on Facebook, we should actually break bread more often in person.
“Even those people who think that they are living in the very best way that they could live, I think they need to take an inventory of things and then engage some analysis about how they might go about leading a better life,” Craig says. “We should all change our behavior. We should all determine whether the way that we spend our days, the way that we spend our weeks, the way that we spend our years, when we’re called to account for how we spent our time, are ways of which we would be very proud and would say to ourselves, ‘I don’t know how I could have spent my time better.’”