An idea that came to mind as I read Leonard Pitts' column today, that started out, "Let’s stop worrying about people’s rights.” Bear with me as I spin out this quick thought exercise.
The country's all tied up in debates about people being treated wrongly by the government.
Basically, we have competing, important values. We want security and safety, yet we also believe in individual liberty. To what extent can we suspend someone's liberty because we feel it's necessary to promote safety and security? Pitts gives a long list of times when the US has done just that, and lots of people suffered serious harm.
When we fear a big security threat, we get fuzzy about the liberty part.
We've got police who've been shooting unarmed citizens. Some because they've got personal issues that lead them to abuse their official power. Others because they are legitimately fearful of their safety and react in fear and haste, but not necessarily unreasonably.
And fear of terrorists leads some politicians and not a few citizens to brush aside the rights of fellow citizens for what they see as everyone's safety.
Aside from these issues, there are innocent people who get arrested after a crime is committed because they look like the suspect or because they're in the wrong place at the wrong time, or any number of other reasons.
At this point, we mostly say, "Sorry, Charlie, that's the cost of justice" and send them on their way.
But what if we just decided that people who were wrongfully treated by the government were automatically entitled to be made whole? "Hey, sorry we put you in jail for three weeks, here's money to cover the losses you incurred. That's the price of a just society. We make whole those who turn out to be the by-catch of our justice system." It could be back pay for the work they missed. And if they were fired during that time, support until they get new work. And whatever physical or mental health treatment they or their family require due to the incident.
Why should a few people have to pay huge personal costs because the police arrested the wrong person or because we want to detain certain people because we think they might be terrorists?
Some of this already happens, but usually because someone sues. Why did the Americans interned during WW II because they were of Japanese descent have to wait forty some years to get a token compensation? Why didn't they all get paid for their losses when they left the camps? And if the government knew ahead of time that compensation would be required, perhaps they would have done more to protect the internees' property while they were interned.
Besides being fair to the victims, I suspect that there would also be much more accountability for individuals who made bad public decisions. If a city had to pay, automatically, for false arrests, I suspect that slowly, but surely, there would be fewer of them, and the victims would be detained for shorter periods. And that people who might lose their houses because they couldn't pay the mortgage while in jail, might have those payments made by the government, to keep the eventual reimbursement lower.
And knowing that, say, today, every Muslim who might be interned if some fearful (or pandering) politicians had their way, would have to be reimbursed for their inconvenience, would mean that not only would we weigh such proposals against the loss of rights, but we'd also weigh them against the cost of future reimbursements.
Would government bodies have to have a compensation fund from which they could compensate victims? Would insurance companies offer policies? If they did, they'd also start rating the efficiency and fairness of organizations like police departments so they could set profitable rates. And those ratings would probably be a better measure of departments than we get now.
Nobody and no agency is ever going to be perfect, is ever going to make mistake-free. And if they were, it would mean they weren't pushing hard enough to do what they were supposed to do. But, why should mistreated individual citizens have to pay an extraordinary price so that all the rest of us are safer? If it's true that the number of such victims is small, the price for compensating them shouldn't be all that high. But if we find out that number isn't that low, then the cost of compensating them will be incentive to make sure it's as low as it can be and still allow police and others to do the work of protecting everyone adequately.
See follow up post.