I do not watch enough professional basketball to figure out the status of Lebron James. I do know ESPN rated him as one of the most successful and influential basketball players of all time. He not only knows how to shoot hoops, but he knows how to use his head. For instance, his house was spray-painted with racist graffiti. At the news conference about the incident, James said that when he learned of the slur, he thought about the mother of Emmett Till. After her 14-year-old son was lynched in 1955, she insisted there be an open coffin so people could see for themselves the brutality of the murder. He said, “No matter how much money you have, no matter how famous you are, no matter how many people admire you, being black in America is — it’s tough,” says James. “And we got a long way to go for us as a society and for us as African-Americans until we feel equal in America.” He also once wore a shirt saying, “I Can’t Breathe” instead of his Cleveland Cavaliers jersey in the team’s Dec. 8, 2014 game against the Brooklyn Nets. The protest T-shirt invoked the last words of Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York who died as a police officer put him in a chokehold.
So what is the big deal here anyway? Who cares if the system is fair as long as the “bad guys” are punished?
The “big deal” is that there is a “growing consensus to make reforms to the juvenile and criminal justice systems to ensure that criminal laws are enforced more fairly and efficiently. Unwarranted disparities and unduly harsh sentences undermine trust in the rule of law and offend the basic principles of fairness and justice. In an era of limited resources and diverse threats, there is a public safety imperative to devote the resources of the criminal justice system to the practices that are most successful at deterring crime and protecting the public.” President Obama fact sheet.
Before you just blow off this statement as political rhetoric, take a look at the Chicago Gun Project (CGP). See Andrew V. Papachristos, Tracey L. Meares & Jeffrey Fagan, Attention Felons: Evaluating Project Safe Neighborhoods in Chicago, 4 J. EMPIRICAL LEGAL STUD. 223, 224 (2007). The CGP examined how offenders’ perceptions of the law and social networks influence their understanding of legal authority and subsequent law-violating behavior. The findings suggest that while criminals as a whole have negative opinions of the law and legal authority, these offenders are more likely to obey the law when they believe in (a) the substance of the law, and (b) the legitimacy of legal actors, especially the police.
This means that deterrence-based law enforcement policies like creating fear based on police presence does not work. Many policies of the criminal system are based on increasing the threat and actual use of formal sanctions, such as police saturation patrols, judges being tough on crime, three-strikes laws, mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, and increased penalties for certain types of crimes. In other words, fear based forced compliance with the law does not create compliance with the law. See, Tom R. Tyler, Why People Obey the Law (Princeton University Press 2006) (people obey the law if they believe it’s legitimate, not because they fear punishment). Tyler suggests that lawmakers and law enforcers would do much better to make legal systems worthy of respect than to try to instill fear of punishment. He finds that people obey law primarily because they believe in respecting legitimate authority.
It is a sad comment on society that it takes a basketball player to teach proper law enforcement policies