Saturday, August 9, 2003

Meet in the street

In days gone by, a village's minor miscreants would find themselves in the stocks, famously the target of rotten vegetables, although this would depend on the miscreant's general popularity. This was a hangover from the Anglo-Saxon notion that justice was a community affair, this being part of a scale of punishments that generally focused around one's place in a community. I'm not going to get all postmodernist misty-eyed about stocks – Anglo-Saxon England was not a golden land, and the Dark Ages weren't a golden age. Justice could also be savage, with branding and hanging features of a system that believed more in retribution than rehabilitation.
But the idea of a more public, community-based justice does appeal to me.
Our cities do not have communities analogous to the medieval village – indeed, we tend not to even know our neighbours, let alone feel any sense of community with them. This is a pity, but times have changed. The world is overwhelmingly urban and will become even more so in the future.
But we all – or nearly all - live in streets. I think we could start having "streetmoots", a modern-day equivalent of the folkmoot, where all citizens can gather and debate decisions that affect them. Some places already have community councils – it's not a terribly off-the-wall idea – but in most places apathy reigns. (It still would. I don't suppose many would bother. At first. Once it was seen that the streetmoots wielded some power, maybe…)
Our minor miscreants these days are often given "community service" as a punishment for their crimes. This serves to keep minor offenders out of the nick, while satisfying society's desire for retribution (which is fed by the screaming tabloids – often calling for the head of judges who are seen to be lenient in their sentencing). But you don't often see them doing it.
Here's my suggestion. The streetmoot decides the punishment for certain minor crimes that are committed in its area. The burgled pass sentence on the burglar. Members of the burglar's own street attend the hearing. Notice of the sentence, with a picture of the miscreant, is posted in both streets. The miscreant, who will probably be clearing dogshit, or painting fences, or weeding, must wear an orange jumpsuit.
But here, I think, is the kicker. The miscreant must wear the jumpsuit until the streetmoot allows it to be removed. Would this happen? I think so. I think people would get to talking to the bad boy (read girl also). They'd find out that he was not just a junkie who turned their house over, not just a thief, a mugger, a loser. They'd find out that he, like them, was a human being, a member of the community.
Okay, it'll never happen. The Anglo-Saxon system of justice passed away because the state usurped all right to justice. And it isn't going to hand it back. The chance to return justice to the people came and went with Cromwell.