Anger and Justice: Doing Something Is Never as Good as Doing the Right Thing

Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg
Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg (J.M. Giordano)

By Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg

Teaching about anger, Maimonides wrote, “One should not be of an angry disposition and be easily angered, nor should one be like a dead person who does not feel, but one should be in the middle — one should display anger only when the matter is serious enough to warrant it in order to prevent the matter from recurring.”

In other words, Maimonides’ primary concern about anger is not really about anger; it’s about impulsivity.

Anger is a natural human emotion. It’s normal to get angry at times. Indeed, there’s a lot to be angry about in this world. But when we allow anger, fear or other strong protective emotions to dominate us, to pull us out of our heads on a regular basis, we end up making lots of defensive, emotionally driven decisions. Sometimes this looks like snapping at a family member or friend. Sometimes it means withholding compassion when it’s sorely needed. Sometimes it leads to mob violence, egged on by social media algorithms.

Impulsivity can also spiral between individuals, inspiring retribution, which only begets further retribution. If you watched the Emmy-award winning show “Beef,” you know what I’m talking about. What’s terrific about the show is that its main characters are not monsters, though they do some monstrous things. They’re flawed human beings, and we the viewers are forced to see at least some of ourselves in the many terrible choices they make.

But impulsivity, I would submit to you, is also destructive, even dangerous, when it leads to bad policy, and that’s what I fear could be happening right now in Annapolis.

At Beth Am late last month, we talked about juvenile justice with Vinny Schiraldi, secretary of the Maryland Department of Juvenile Service. Did you know that Maryland automatically charges children as young as 14 as adults for certain offenses? Maryland refers more children to adult court than California, a state six times our size. In fact, Maryland sends more young people to adult court based on offense type, per capita, than any other state except for Alabama.

Schiraldi shared research that shows children who are placed into the adult criminal justice system, as Maryland’s laws often demand they are without any prosecutorial discretion, end up more traumatized, more violent and more likely to recidivate as adults than young people guilty of the same crimes but processed through juvenile systems.

Schiraldi also mentioned that there were 13 times as many adults arrested for homicide as kids in Maryland last year, but “you’d just never know that from watching TV.” If you have been following Fox 45 and Sinclair Media’s general depiction of Baltimore City and Black communities, you know what I’m talking about. And now that Sinclair owner David Smith and Armstrong Williams have purchased The Baltimore Sun, they have an additional platform from which to launch attacks against Baltimore City and reform-minded cabinet secretaries like Schiraldi.

So, perhaps it’s no surprise that when the leadership unveiled its tougher-on-juveniles crime bills in Annapolis recently (HB814/SB744), Senate President Bill Ferguson said, “While youth offenders account for less than 10% of the crimes committed, unfortunately, it is clear that they become the largest part of the crime perception challenge in Maryland.”

To my mind, this begs a question: If the problem is crime perception, if the problem is how we think about our youth, wouldn’t courageous leadership in this moment challenge these false assumptions, to help Maryland residents recalibrate perceptions to match reality?

Is there a problem with youth violence in Baltimore and Maryland? No doubt. Do some kids do really terrible things? For sure, and Schiraldi said there need to be serious consequences when they do. What systemic solutions, though, reflect best practices? What bureaucratic or funding solutions need to be employed that haven’t been? Or haven’t been given sufficient time or staffing? Is the problem really youth violence or just violence? And if it’s the latter, the correct solution can’t possibly be to treat more kids, whose very brains are still developing, like grown-ups. We’d do better to treat more kids like kids, as often as possible, with as much discretion and compassion as possible.

I suspect our elected officials remember well the “child super predator” myth from 30 years ago. To be fair, did the governor, the Senate president, the speaker of the House, Del. Luke Clippinger or Sen. William Smith use language like that? They did not. But there are many people who do perceive children in this way, in no small part because of media and social media influences. And those people, watching and reading those media depictions, are pressuring their elected officials to do more, to do something. But doing something is never as good as doing the right thing.

The approach feels a bit hotheaded and, as Maimonides reminds us, hotheaded is almost always wrong headed. As Schiraldi explained, a lot of really bad policies came out of previous efforts to curtail crime by simply being tough on criminals.

It’s seductive to try to solve urgent problems immediately. On the other hand, it’s so very hard to make choices now that we know will take time to bring results, to plant seeds that must germinate before they can sprout. But this: planting seeds, cultivating growth, is the very essence of child-rearing. It is the very thing society owes to the next generation.

I don’t know for sure why our elected officials see fit to roll back some of the protections that were put in place with the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2022. If I’m being charitable, some of it may be helpful tweaking or recalibration for better results. But an honest read of the legislation as it’s currently proposed is hard to justify as anything other than reactionary and, in some instances, regressive. Honestly, we should be passing the Youth Equity and Safety (YES) Act and removing the draconian practice of auto-charging minors as adults, but there’s seemingly no political will to even give that a hearing this year.

What does seem to be clear is that there’s a gathering wind pushing our state away from productive policies and toward something cynical and concerning.

Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg is the senior rabbi at Beth Am.

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