A Black Panther and a Goldman Sachs Banker Walk Into a Bakery …

Black Panther George Jackson wrote about black men imprisoned for “some form of food getting.” If these men were seeking a necessity, what were the Goldman Sachs bankers seeking when they contributed to the economy’s collapse?

The Securities and Exchange Commission (where I once worked) is prosecuting some form of civil charges against Goldman Sachs. But will any bankers face criminal charges? There is an old saying to the effect that a single murder is awful, but a thousand murders is completely acceptable (if you call it “war”). Similarly, stealing a loaf of bread from a bakery will get you thrown in jail, but bankrupting a thousand bakers will not.

George Jackson’s concerns about the imprisonment of black men (and more to the point, poor people) are still valid. But wait, didn’t Barack Obama’s election herald an era of unprecedented opportunity for traditionally disenfranchised groups? I’ll believe it when we stop building prisons and start building schools, including affordable public colleges.

But what is the solution? Do we imprison the bankers? As an advocate for restorative justice, I have no interest in incarcerating more people. Currently, when poor people break rules, we exile them into the prison system. In contrast, restorative justice seeks to integrate transgressors back into society; it views misbehavior as a sign the transgressor has lost his sense of connection to other people, and recognizes that restoring that sense of connection is key to deterring further undesirable behavior.

So the best solution is to work with transgressors (rich and poor) to restore their sense of connection with society. If you doubt this method is effective, I encourage you to learn more about restorative justice – there is compelling evidence it provides a better outcome for both victim and transgressor. In the case of the transgressing bankers, justice might involve: (1) an in-person meeting in which the victims can explain how the bankers’ actions have harmed them; (2) an acknowledgment by the bankers that they understand and regret the harm they have caused and a sincere apology for their deleterious actions; (3) an explanation by the bankers of how they got to the point where making obscene profits was more important than not harming people; (4) the return of all money wrongly received (perhaps the money can be used to construct new public schools and hire new teachers); (5) a vow to act in a more constructive manner; and (6) a commitment to perform some service of benefit to the community (perhaps serving as crossing guards at the newly built schools). Importantly, poor people who transgress should have similar opportunities to participate in restorative justice sessions.

In all cases, societal representatives should be present to acknowledge our role in the undesirable behavior. Specifically, we have allowed a culture to arise in which a small number of people can exert massive control over the national economy, and in which poor people who work (or are willing to work) are not paid enough to buy basic necessities. The public is never powerless to affect change, and taking responsibility for our past failures empowers us to make better decisions in the future.

Of course, if we are not going to adopt principles of restorative justice, then it is only fair we incarcerate any bankers who committed fraud. But let’s be realistic. Judging by our past actions, we will probably not send powerful bankers to prison. Moreover, and this is where society must accept our share of the blame, many of the bankers most destructive and undesirable acts were (arguably) legal under our current inadequate regulatory system. However, even if the bankers escape justice, there is still a way we can harness their inexcusable greed to make the system more fair.

Whenever a poor person is on trial for “food getting” or other “illegal” behavior designed to meet a basic human need, the jury should be instructed regarding the bankers’ destructive activities and the absence of any criminal punishment. If people wish to imprison a poor person who sought to feed his family, let them do so after hearing about the extreme leniency shown the wealthy bankers whose unbridled greed hurt us all.