Some time ago I reread one of the most famous novels of the 20th century, Franz Kafka’s The Trial (Kafka, 1925). Unlike my first experience of reading it, this occasion of reading, along with some other information I run across soon after, has driven me to many conclusions about the state and its system of judgment.
The reality described in The Trial is a grim one. One day, its main character, despite knowing he hasn’t done anything wrong, finds himself charged with a crime (Kafka, 1925, p. 3). His efforts to find out what he has done, what he is charged with, and how to deal with that, turn out to be utterly vain. After a year passes since the day he was first accused, the protagonist is taken out of his home and executed (Kafka, 1925, p. 163-167).
The world of the novel and some gossip I read on the Internet about the USA being a country with the highest imprisonment rate in the world have caused me to look for additional information. If the US is said to have so many prisoners, what is the reason for it? Is it true that we have so many criminals in our, or is there a problem in our system of justice? Both alternatives seemed strange, so I decided to investigate the issue further.
One of the materials I found was an article by D. K. Brown (Brown, 2014). And this article convinced me that, indeed, there are many similarities between the Kafka’s world and our modern juridical system. The US not just has the highest incarceration rate in the world, but the prisoners here are often imprisoned even without a trial (Brown, 2014, p. 487-488). According to Brown, many people have been punished despite having broken no laws, and sometimes for the most serious kinds of crimes (Brown, 2014, p.488). It seems that the state has its own methods to get false guilty pleas from its citizens, such as torture or a legal right to threaten to charge the defendant’s relatives with crimes (Brown, 2014, p.491).
I also run across some materials regarding Mumia Abu-Jamal, a black journalist who is supposed to have killed a policeman and was sentenced to the death penalty in 1982. On the other hand, it appears that there are many uncertainties in this case, and his punishment had been constantly postponed up until 2011, when the sentence was finally reconsidered and changed to life imprisonment (“Mumia Abu-Jamal spared death penalty after prosecutors drop 30-year bid for execution”, 2011, para. 1). Still, it seems that, in spite of the presumption of innocence, a man who had not been proven guilty with absolute certainty had to spend 30 years of his life expecting the death penalty to come after him on any day. Is it not an utterly Kafkaesque situation?
These facts, Kafka’s novel, and some materials I also found which explain that the state legally has monopoly on violence in the society, made me reconsider my attitude towards both the state and the system of judgment. It seems to me now that the state, despite being supposed to protect its citizens and ensure their welfare, is primarily a machine of violence. A better way to fight crime would be to remove its causes, which are usually poverty and hopelessness, and to strive to rehabilitate criminals, not to mindlessly punish them; but the accent is being made on punishing. The defenselessness of a single citizen against the penal system and the arbitrariness of the law enforcers are clearly unfair and leave a bitter taste of the Kafkaesque world in the mouth.
Brown, D. K. (2014). What can Kafka tell us about American criminal justice? Texas Law Review, 93(2), 487-503. Web.
Kafka, F. (1925). The trial. (D. Wyllie, Trans.). Web.