William Shakespeare famously penned “Romeo and Juliet,” from which we derive the popular phrase, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” In other words, it’s the characteristics of something or someone that defines them, not the name by which we call them. Yet, I wonder whether this phrase holds any truth today. Can we as a society truly assert that the names we give people have no meaning?
When it comes to our justice system, I don’t believe we can.
Washington Post columnist Elizabeth Bruenig recently published an investigative article recounting the rape, vilification and deterioration of a young Amber Wyatt. As I read Amber’s story, it felt astoundingly familiar. A vulnerable girl is raped. Few believe her story. She is left to struggle with this horrifying event and the following social alienation on her own. She turns to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate and finds herself interacting with the justice system in a new way — as a criminal.
Less than half a year after her rape in August 2006, Amber was arrested for driving while intoxicated. In 2009, she was charged with the possession of illicit drugs. And in 2010, she was arrested for driving while intoxicated. In all three cases, she pleaded guilty or no contest. Although Amber is now employed, married and living a much happier life, she has an extensive criminal record.
So then, by your counts, who is Amber Wyatt — a victim or an offender? A survivor or a criminal? Neither choice is substantively wrong. This is the downfall of the binary label.
For if we label Amber an offender or a criminal, we lose the context of her circumstances, her victimization. We forget, minimize and fail to empathize with her pain – and the ways we, as a society, might have prevented it had we been there to support her when she struggled to grasp it.
I wonder sometimes if we do this to dissociate ourselves from individuals who commit crimes, to convince ourselves that we would never make the same mistakes. If I call you “offender” or “criminal,” then perhaps I am suddenly more removed from your actions, my perceived righteousness impenetrable to any critique when compared to your greatest sin. I am then seemingly off the hook from truly examining what forces led you to this moment, shaped your opportunities and choices, and ultimately made you more likely to make this poor decision.
I know many women who have survived excruciating experiences similar to those Amber survived — women who have been victims of assault, rape or physical and emotional abuse. These experiences shaped their choices. Some were able to receive the support they needed and find healing. Others were not able to do so until long after. A few turned to alcohol. Others turned the pain in toward themselves. I cannot definitively assert that I would have always made the wisest choices had I been in their shoes. I haven’t walked a mile in them. Have you?
We need to lose our self-righteous attitude when we discuss individuals who have committed a crime. We need to seek out their story, to look for the broken pieces, to provide opportunities for appropriate services and work harder to prevent these events from happening in the first place.
This doesn’t mean we lose accountability; it means that we infuse our systems of accountability with this knowledge and seek to bring about healing for both those affected by crime and those who commit crime. After all, sometimes they are one and the same.
Indeed, many women in our criminal justice system have been victims of crime. A 2012 study found that 40 percent of jailed female respondents reported experiencing physical abuse as a child, 47 percent reported experiencing sexual abuse as a child, 67 percent reported experiencing partner violence, and 45 percent reported experiencing sexual assault as an adult. And females are not the only ones experiencing this harm — males convicted of crimes have often been victims, too.
We make a choice when we label those who commit crimes solely based on their wrongful acts and ignore the ways they have been wronged. Our ignorance costs both them and us, and only leads to greater pain and societal breakdown.
It’s time we make a different choice. Let’s choose to truly listen to the problems and experiences of our neighbors, to comfort and treat those who need our help, and to call for a system of justice that sees all victims — regardless of their place in a courtroom — as individuals worthy of human dignity and respect.