Sunday, August 25, 2013

Homeless at the feet of Lady Justice

Everyday, on my walk through the streets of Toronto to work, I walk beside businesspeople - dressed much the same as myself - and make my way to the downtown office. Each day, I see many of the same faces. Faces of those who walk beside me. Faces of those sleeping on the sidewalk below me. Faces of those sitting on a ledge somewhere in between.

There is a shortcut I take on my walk to the office. I dart off to the right of the main street and cut through the path beside the courthouse. I walk on a stone pathway, surrounded on both sides by two fountains symbolizing balance and justice. And then I walk through a small overhang, whose doors lead into the courts. Always, there are three people there. Either sleeping, or just having woken up. And then I keep walking and I see a statue of Lady Justice on the left of the other side of the overhang.

I always feel the weight of irony hit me.

Inside that courthouse, guilt is decided, sentences is laid, justice is said to be served. But right outside that very same courthouse, the very justice that this courthouse stands for is missing. What concept of balance or goodness has society given to the people sleeping on the sidewalk there? And what makes me so incredibly fortunate to be walking along this path, on the way to my office job in Toronto, while they sleep on the streets and struggle to get by?

Certainly, we are missing something when society itself is built in such a way that we feel some people merit their jobs more than others. That a person who grows up with a single mother in a low-income home without child support, in a neighbourhood grouped with similar children who all attend the same school and have the same teachers who must stretch themselves to meet these needs, and then try to access the same "socialization" into museums, books, and other places of cultural knowledge to try and get a job. There is no doubt that this person will struggle to get to my office job a great deal more than I have. What did anybody do for them, at this early part of their lives, to help them in their journey along the way? Yes, they may have some help, from churches, from youth groups, from support groups, from Kiwanis, from Big Brother and Big Sister groups - I applaud all of these initiatives, but it spurs a question of just how far justice needs to extend in our society before each person actually has the resources and the support and the knowledge and the love they require to reach their goals. It's not a level playing field.

Which further brings up the question of criminal justice and punishment itself. If a person grows up and experiences abuse, if they grow up in dire straights and steal to get money, if they grow up and find themselves in a gang to protect themselves from the violence in their neighbourhood, then where is the justice in punishing a person who is, in fact, themselves a victim?

In Thomas Moore's Utopia, he writes, "For if you suffer your people to be ill-educated, and their manners to be corrupted from their infancy, and then punish them for those crimes to which their first education disposed them, what else is to be concluded from this, but that you first make thieves and then punish them.”

Everyday I walk past Lady Justice, I feel a bit queasy. But I appreciate my uneasiness too - let's start to think about how we can change our world, in a big way, in a small way, and make justice something that's more than the courts, and rather, something that starts at the core of who we are and extends into the way we live and support one another in our communities.