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[COMMENTARY] Restore Justice to America: What January 6 Sentencing Reveals About U.S. Democracy

[COMMENTARY] Restore Justice to America: What January 6 Sentencing Reveals About U.S. Democracy

Has America lost its motive for justice?

(Photo by LAURA MOROSOLI/AFP via Getty Images)

Heading into the first anniversary of the U.S. Capitol breach when a mob violently attempted to decertify results of the 2020 presidential election, there remains a long list of defendants charged.

When judges hand down light sentences for what many would consider to be grave crimes, it can do one of two things: lead people to re-interpret the offense as less harmful or delegitimize the institution in charge of justice. Both could have significant consequences for U.S. democracy.

The Department of Justice in December issued its longest sentence so far: Robert Scott Palmer of Largo, Florida, got 63 months for repeatedly assaulting police guarding the building. People were arrested in all 50 states with punishments leaning toward a matter of months rather than hard time for high crimes.

Lenient punishments connected to the January 6 insurrection have the capability to further erode Americans’ perceptions of this country’s justice institutions. The new year will bring additional stories of defendants’ trials and sentencings, and it is important to consider how these court decisions could drive citizens’ judgment of the insurrection, as well as the justice system that charges them.

As a psychologist, I research how people perceive justice and how these perceptions drive their motivations and behaviors. Much of human cognition involves retrospectively making judgements about actions and events after the consequences settle.

Authorities typically resort to more serious consequences when faced with severe offenses. The balance between sentence and crime is necessary because humans have a core desire for justice, a need called the justice motive.

The human desire for justice is so great, it often generates a human tendency to find justice even in its absence. That desire explains why people tend to blame the victim, and in doing so they re-establish justice cognitively, reinterpreting the tragedy within a framework of justice.

Injustice is so heinous, people will reinterpret events to avoid encountering it. Lenient sentencing for attacks on democratic institutions may cause some people to reinterpret the events of January 6 as less serious than they actually were.

The other natural human response to injustice is to stop perceiving authorities as legitimate. Most people obey the laws because they legitimize the authority and voluntarily defer to it. Injustice has a corrosive power on legitimacy.

In researching perceptions of justice and legal authorities, we found that perceived injustice predicts lower legitimacy beliefs. This pattern persists in how children judge parental authorities, how students judge teachers’ legitimacy, and how youth perceive police and the law.

So a perceived injustice, such as light sentencing for what many would classify as an egregious crime, undermines the legitimacy of the justice system. That legitimacy is the main pillar of future rule-abiding behavior. Any action that undermines a system’s legitimacy will predict disengagement and cynicism. Such cynicism writes Megan Garber in The Atlantic, makes democracy impossible.

These perceptions of justice matter because actual justice matters. Justice is a form of capital that is not distributed equally.

Justice capital occurs at both an individual and a systemic level. When a child does not have a strong enough voice to be believed or defend themselves, that child has lower access to justice. When an employee is working in a nepotistic company, they have lower justice capital. When people perceive others have higher access to justice than they do themselves, that is ripe for legal cynicism.

Research with Brazilian adolescents reveals citizens as young as 12 can pick up on systemic inequalities of justice access. And when they perceive that most people have a more just life than they have personally, they are the most cynical.

A study with nearly 800 youth from São Paulo, Brazil reveals that adolescents’ experiences of justice/injustice in the home and in the school predicted their future expectations of justice, how much they legitimized the law and their self-reported delinquent behaviors. Young citizens are shaping their notions of democratic systems that will drive their future engagement.

Brazil also lives a moment of increased political polarization whose president, Jair Bolsonaro, touts eerily similar rhetoric as former President Donald J. Trump and threatens an insurrection similar to that of January 6.

2022 is an election year for Brazil, with youth largely rejecting the polarization and prioritizing issues of social justice, such as reducing poverty and inequality. American young adults show similar trends in priorities and a recent poll by the Institute of Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School shows that the majority of young adults believe U.S. democracy is in trouble or failing.

Those who entered the Capitol that day, despite evidence legitimizing the electoral result, believed they had suffered an injustice, so they withdrew legitimacy to the democratic authority transfer and broke their social contract by trying to stop the electoral count.

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Now, breaking the social contract requires justice.

However, as lenient sentencing in some cases arrives, it is important to not lose sight of the dangers of over-sentencing. There is empirical evidence to suggest more incarceration does not lead to a safer society. Restorative justice seeks to recognize and repair harm and typically provides an outlet for the perpetrator to be held accountable and engage in the repair.

Restorative justice is only possible with offender accountability, and many defendants have no remorse. Data shows this practice is most supported when there is harm to a person or community. In a statement by Restorative Justice International regarding the January 6 attacks, democracy is the victim.

Restorative justice should certainly be part of the path forward if the offenders could help repair the democratic virtues and participate in actions against misinformation campaigns and reach out to their community members to participate in repairing the harm to American delegitimized democracy. These actions are not to be confused with permissive justice, which fails to set limits and necessary social discipline.

Research on justice expectations can seem paradoxical because they are both a necessity and an illusion, but paradox mindsets can also be the key to progress. Losing all expectations of justice will spur cynicism and delegitimization, yet, the world is unjust. Understanding the power of justice as a human motivator and the individual differences in justice access should help inspire agency and change.

Paulo Freire, a revolutionary Brazilian educator, and mentor to the late bell hooks explains that people do not hope because they have succeeded in the past but because hope is a moral imperative that drives social change.

Similarly, people must pursue justice, not because it exists in its present form but because justice is a moral imperative.

About the Author:

Kendra Thomas is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Indianapolis who researches youth perceptions of justice and works to improve positive interventions in child and adolescent development in research funded by the Templeton World Charity Foundation.

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