America has a problem with proportionality
And we almost never talk about it
One of the police officers who ripped 1-year-old Damone from his mother's arms in a Brooklyn social services office really put his back into it. He searched for a good grip on the baby's body and, having acquired it, started jerking his own body up and out, making a yanking motion I've used to tear a stubborn weed from my garden.
This is not a motion I can imagine using on a child.
Perhaps if Jazmine Headley, the woman desperately holding on to Damone, were not his mother but his kidnapper, the yanking would have made sense. But reality is not so dramatic. Headley is Damone's mom, and her violent treatment at the hands of New York City police officers was reportedly initiated over the piddling "offense" of insisting she could sit on the waiting room floor because all the chairs were full.
The encounter was filmed and Facebooked, picking up views and outrage as a ghastly new example of police brutality. And beyond the visceral reaction the video engenders, what makes this story so instinctively galling is the lack of proportionality. Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez communicated as much when he announced Tuesday that he would not pursue any charges against Headley because the "consequences this young and desperate mother has already suffered as a result of this arrest far outweigh any conduct that may have led to it."
She is not the only one to suffer this way. America has a problem with proportionality. Our criminal justice system excels at making that failing obvious, because proportionality is integral to justice. It's particularly important in retributive justice systems like our own (whether retribution is our best option is a question I'll leave for another day), where without proportionality we may find ourselves exacting punishments that go well beyond "an eye for an eye."
Proportionality is also vague and debatable. We can agree on the principle while differing on the details, and our use of punishments with no restitutionary connection to the crime exacerbates this confusion. It is easy to see the proportion, say, in requiring a thief to repay his victim for a stolen item. But how should a theft be measured in jail time? How many months or years are proportionate to taking a television or burning down a house? We can't convert crimes to prison sentences like inches to centimeters, so we argue about what's proportionate.
But we don't argue about proportionality nearly enough.
Maybe this is because American culture is prone to excess. Maybe it's just an indecent apathy. Whatever the reason, a society where anyone can imagine what happened to Jazmine Headley was just is a society where proportionality has been severely neglected.
The same is true of Crystal Mason, a Texas woman serving a 10-month sentence in federal prison, likely to be followed by five years in a state facility. Her crime was voting in the 2016 election, which she did without realizing that being under supervised release for a prior conviction made her ineligible to vote. Mason's provisional ballot was never counted. Though she did break the law, her intention was innocent, and the harm she caused was nil. Reasonable people can disagree about what an appropriate punishment might be, but taking half a decade of her life is not it. Mason's punishment is callously disproportionate to her offense.
The same is true of Precious Jones, a Missouri woman for whom a single speeding ticket led to driver's ed classes, community service, a suspended license, fines, and 20 days of jail time served on weekends. After serving all 20 days, she thought the saga was over — until the county prosecutor decided tardiness to a single jail day is cause to revoke probation and slap Jones with six months in jail. Now she may well lose her job, and she'll be billed up to several thousand dollars for her stay in county lockup.
Jones' entire life is being unraveled over a speeding ticket. Yes, her speed was unsafe. But what she did does not merit what is being done to her. She is more sinned against than sinning. She is being mercilessly ground down by a system divorced from proportionality.
Proportionality is lacking, too, in President Trump's apparent suggestion that U.S. soldiers respond to rocks thrown by migrants with gunfire, and in his administration's use of tear gas at the border in range of migrant children. It's lacking in "zero tolerance" policies in our schools, where strict mandatory punishments upend kids' lives over childhood antics and misbehavior. It's lacking in our foreign policy, where we've answered the 9/11 attacks with permanent war, including in multiple countries with no connection to 9/11. We've even lost a sense of proportion in how we talk about politics, escalating normal disagreement into an addictive, perpetual fight about anything and everything.
Proportionality is slippery. It is difficult to define, demonstrate, and debate. But debate it we must, because this alternative of silence is vile and cruel.