As Netflix continues to produce easily-consumable documentaries on the justice system and its failures, I am forced to ask what my core principles are when it comes to American jurisprudence. That is, as one who keeps his nose clean and spends no time in the criminal justice system and doesn’t work in it, these docs remind me of many of our founding principles and where we fall short now. I know that Netflix has a leftist/statist agenda, so I watch with a discerning mind. Still, they push me to consider authentic and heartbreaking miscarriages of justice while asking whether this is really just propaganda. After all, some advocates of change would have you believe that most everyone in prison is probably innocent or a victim of failing “systems”.
These shows should be watched by conservatives who often find themselves in-between a rock and a hard place when it comes to our criminal justice system. On the one hand, conservatives tend to be “law and order” types. We support the police, the thin blue line, DAs going after the bad guys, etc. We tend to assume God is on our side when punishment is meted out by the state. And yet, conservatives are also wary of big government and still believe that we are a nation of laws…you know, due process and all of that. So, when we see and hear stories about those whose due process and Constitutional rights are violated by the very figures we want to defend, we may be left confused. Are we on the side of the cops, or those wanting to reform the system? To find out where you stand and why, and without dedicating a healthy portion of your library to the topic, these documentaries are easy and fast ways to engage the questions. Just know that Netflix assuredly has an agenda.
One of their new series, How to Fix a Drug Scandal, is a look at two chemists who took two very different paths to ruining the Massachusetts State Drug Labs. One became a serious drug addict while handling evidence (seized drugs and the standard samples by which to compare them) and the other became too willing to help prosecutors and essentially made up evidence. As the documentary points out, both women were driven to succeed, but were sidetracked by personal and psychological failings. One seemed lost and bored, unsatisfied with her place in life and needing some kind – any kind – of joy. The other seemed ruled by ambition and eager to please powerful people which led her to stop being the objective scientist she was paid to be, neither on the “side” of the prosecutor or the defendant.
No doubt these two downfalls – which just happened to take place at the same time – could have been prevented by some tweaks or reforms to the “system” in which they worked. For example, you would think that those who work around illegal narcotics and whose judgement and work literally sends people to or could free them from prison might be drug tested from time to time. Apparently not! Apparently, it was possible to smoke crack a dozen times a day and not get caught for years. Amazing! Likewise, when someone is able to produce four times as many results as the next scientist, it should be clear that one of your staff chemists is not being sufficiently careful in her work and might just be fabricating results. But instead of being questioned, she was encouraged.
So yes, reforms were needed as most every system or process or institution is in need of reform at any given time. But while we are focusing on two bad actors (or is it actresses?), what is lost is all the other chemists who did their job well without the need to make up results or get addicted to crack. When the calls come out for systemic reform, we might forget to see that the real reform needed is our attention to virtue. Reforms of systems are needed when we do not do what is virtuous, and we vainly hope that tweaking the system can overcome our moral failings. The reality is that there are not enough reforms in the world to overcome our individual and collective moral failings. The far better path is to unashamedly promote the virtuous life, preferably rooted in the knowledge and character of God. To no one’s surprise, Netflix never does this, and it never will.
When we don’t do what we are supposed to do, we suffer and other people suffer. And if we want to have any kind of real freedom, then that will include the freedom to hurt others due to our lack of virtue.
Both of these women were in clear positions to do what was right, again and again. Their colleagues did what was right. Why didn’t they? Rather than use these stories as an excuse to change the way we are fighting the war on drugs, would it be worth it to consider these two chemists religious (or not) upbringing? Would it be useful to consider how they view the world and whether or not that is, in fact, the terrifying default view of our society? Did they understand their vocations as mere paychecks or did they understand they were loving their neighbor through their trade? Did they live in a way that considered being accountable to God, or were they moral free agents who were getting through the day and little else? Do they have a view of eternity that includes their actions now, or are we mere creatures out to get what is ours?
I actually have a lot of sympathy for these two chemists. I am no better than they are, morally speaking. But my concern is that we will take what is a case of individual moral failings and use them as proof that the criminal justice system needs to be dramatically reformed in favor of the legalization of drugs or the under-prosecution of drug crimes. Think that is an overstatement? Read what the ACLU wrote in the wake of achieving these mass exonerations: “We have a public health crisis, not a criminal justice problem, and aggressive drug prosecutions based on tainted evidence are not the solution.”
Indeed, in the case of Sonja Farak, the drug addict, there was only a handful of cases that could be proved to be tainted because of her addiction. And yet, because it couldn’t be proven otherwise, the cases were dismissed. But don’t let that prevent the ACLU for continuing to push for viewing drug use as a health crisis, a view I do not share.
That said, on the prosecution side, clear rules of evidence were violated in these cases. There may be nothing more repugnant to the American way of life than a prosecutor who does not strictly abide by rules of disclosure. But do we need reforms? In this case, no, what we need are virtuous prosecutors who follow the law. We already have the systems in place.
This really gets to the core of how liberals and conservatives see the world differently. Conservatives tend to view the solution to social ills from the inside out. We are to seek personal virtue which is taught in our local families and communities and builds up a virtuous society. Problems can often be isolated to personal failings, not failed systems. Liberals tend to work from the outside in: when we get the systems right, all will be well. The system will protect us from the moral failings of others.
I suppose there is merit to both, and this documentary clearly falls on the latter. But if you pay attention, I believe what you will see is far more evidence for the former. It is a tale of sad women who made poor choices. Neither was a victim of socio-economic discrimination. Neither was without the opportunity to do the right thing. Neither was forced by a “system” to abuse the system. They sinned. Would it be worthwhile to explore those moral failings given their oversized impact? Absolutely. Would such an exploration ever be possible? Never. At least, not on Netflix.