The question of what exactly justice is has been debated since the days of Socrates and Plato. This week we have a case that raises this debate anew. I consider the case of film director Roman Polanski an issue over what is justice in its purest sense.
Thirty two years ago, Roman Polanski drugged a 13 year old model who was posing for him, and engaged in various sex acts with her including intercourse while she was in a compromised state and could not resist his advances. The victim won a judgment in a civil suit and Polanski plead guilty to a lesser charge (i.e. statutory rape rather than a host of other charges of which he was originally charged). When Polanski got the impression that his sentence would be stiffer than expected he fled the country, settling in France from where he could not be extradited to the States. When he visited Switzerland this past Saturday he was arrested. (Why after several trips to Switzerland over the years, they suddenly decided to arrest him is a topic for another post.)
The notion of punishment in our criminal justice system usually has three motivating drivers:
1. Compensation to the victim: We punish the criminal to right the wrong committed against the victim.
2. Protection of society: We punish the criminal to influence him not to commit his crime again.
3. Deterrence to others: We punish the criminal to make an example of him to others so they will not commit similar crimes.
Let’s examine how these drivers apply to Polanski.
1. Compensation to the victim: the victim Samantha Geimer received a civil case settlement from Polanski. She now wants the criminal charges dropped because she has gone through the healing process and does not want the wounds re-opened.
2. Protection of society: Polanski has no documented repeat offenses over the past 32 years, nor any prior to the 1977 incident. He is now 76 years old and an unlikely threat to society.
3. Deterrence to others: Punishing Polanski now hardly amounts to deterring others. If anything the sad moral of the Polanski case is with enough money and connections you can escape punishment and live the rest of your life in luxury.
So what is left? What purpose does punishing Roman Polanski now serve? The answer to this question lies in the concept of justice unrelated to any wronged individual. When Polanski assaulted a minor he committed a crime against civil society. For society to function properly we all must abide by certain rules. When we break those rules we break a covenant with society as a whole. The case of Roman Polanski tests our definition of justice at its most philosophical and conceptual level.
Kate Harding has a blunt and compelling analysis of this in Salon.com:
But what of the now-45-year-old victim, who received a settlement from Polanski in a civil case, saying she’d like to see the charges dropped? Shouldn’t we be honoring her wishes above all else?
In a word, no. At least, not entirely. I happen to believe we should honor her desire not to be the subject of a media circus, which is why I haven’t named her here, even though she chose to make her identity public long ago. But as for dropping the charges, Fecke said it quite well: “I understand the victim’s feelings on this. And I sympathize, I do. But for good or ill, the justice system doesn’t work on behalf of victims; it works on behalf of justice.”
It works on behalf of the people, in fact — the people whose laws in every state make it clear that both child rape and fleeing prosecution are serious crimes. The point is not to keep 76-year-old Polanski off the streets or help his victim feel safe. The point is that drugging and raping a child, then leaving the country before you can be sentenced for it, is behavior our society should not — and at least in theory, does not — tolerate, no matter how famous, wealthy or well-connected you are, no matter how old you were when you finally got caught, no matter what your victim says about it now, no matter how mature she looked at 13, no matter how pushy her mother was, and no matter how many really swell movies you’ve made.
Justice is not specific to any particular victim. Society establishes a set of norms that specify how its members will conduct themselves. When those norms are violated, a price must be paid. It is time for Roman Polanski to pay that price.