Chaos and the “Official Woman”

Scott Henson (Grits For Breakfast) gives us this post describing Twila Hugley Earle’s speech to the Restorative Justice Conference in Kerrville. Earle spoke of the application (or, maybe more accurately, analogization) of chaos theory (Scott defines it as “the study of how turbulence transforms into order organically”) to criminal justice:

The Newtonian worldview sees both change and order mechanically, but reality is more dynamic. Chaos theory offers an alternative.

Because I haven’t studied chaos theory, I don’t quite grok Earle’s idea yet. But I understand it well enough to know that there’s something there — that a linear, Newtonian, cause-and-effect model doesn’t accurately describe human behavior, and that our system based on that model isn’t doing a very good job of dealing with the problem of crime.

Meanwhile (and perhaps related only in my chaotic brain) Scott Greenfield (Simple Justice) gives us this post about dealing with Jimmy Breslin’s “Official Woman.” The Official Woman is someone (male or female) who:

. . . . elevated the rules above all else. She was a grocery clerk with a list, and if it wasn’t on the list, it didn’t exist. She would put on an official voice and pronounce things. Her chest would suddenly swell with self-importance as she would dictate the way things had to be done, and how they could not possibly be done any other way, because those were the rules. She couldn’t think outside the box; She was the box. There was no arguing with the official woman because she was right, about everything, and anyone who thought otherwise was wrong. Of this, she was absolutely certain.

Our criminal “justice” system, as it is, is an Official Woman’s sanctuary. Think about the rule-bound, uncreative judges you know — some judges are proud of being rule-bound. Think about the officious, imaginationless clerks. Think about the self-important, rigid prosecutors. The system wasn’t created for the accused or for the victims, but for these petty governmental functionaries (crimes are, after all, committed against the peace and dignity of the State). How many places other than the courthouse can someone with a graduate degree and fifteen years’ experience get a lifetime job earning $150,000-plus a year for exercising no imagination whatsoever? (I’ve written before on the role of a Childlike Mind and Creativity in the criminal justice system.)

A system based on restorative justice, rather than retributive “justice,” even if it is principally concerned with the needs of the victim rather than the needs of the offender, will do a better job of taking care of people than our current system. Recognizing that we might need to abandon our old way of looking at things (effectively looking at the entire system with a childlike mind) is a step in the right direction; so is recognizing that any movement toward a more functional criminal justice system will have to overcome the tremendous inertia of all of the people with a vested interest in the rules as they are.

0 responses to “Chaos and the “Official Woman””

  1. In management, which we like to think is a social science, we talk about complexity theory and complex adaptive systems. For example:

    “Complex adaptive system models represent a genuinely new way of
    simplifying the complex. They are characterized by four key
    elements: agents with schemata, self-organizing networks sustained
    by importing energy, coevolution to the edge of chaos, and system evolution based on recombination” (Anderson, 1999).

    The idea is to try to model nonlinear interactions between and among organizations. The State is a dominant organization in the “justice” system. What other organizations are involved? What organizations might become involved, or take on a greater role, as people turn to restorative justice?

  2. Interesting thoughts, but could you elaborate on what you mean by restorative justice? Would we still have jails for our most violent offenders or some sort of alternative?

  3. Brian,

    Restorative justice would have to be dominated by people rather than organizations. The more involved organizations become, the less the focus can be on the human beings involved. Bureaucracies impose a transactional cost on everything they are a part of. This transactional cost can be in lost justice instead of lost money.


    The starting point for restorative justice will be a redefinition of justice. I don’t know what the end result will look like. I think chaos theory might suggest that we can’t know from the outset what the end result — if there is one — will look like.

  4. I just went to wikipedia and read a defintion of Restorative Justice. Obviously anyone can put what they want on wikipedia, but what I read didn’t seem bad.In a nutshell it advocated some type of diversion for petty offenders, serious offenders could still face jail time, and the victim’s have more of a say so in what happens. I am in favor though of offenses being considered against the State. Drunk Driving for Instance. Drink all you want when you’re at home, but when you’re on the road you’re putting other lives in danger. If I ever get too off topic feel free to shoot me your response via email.

  5. Thanks, Mark, for the shout out. As for definitions of restorative justice, I wrote up quite a few presentations from the conference where Twila Earle gave her talk, several of which elaborated on theory but also issues with operationalizing the concepts. You can find them all linked here. best,

  6. Mark, you said: “Restorative justice would have to be dominated by people rather than organizations. The more involved organizations become, the less the focus can be on the human beings involved. Bureaucracies impose a transactional cost on everything they are a part of. This transactional cost can be in lost justice instead of lost money.”

    I agree with almost all of that. I would add the following qualification: In the truly free market (not what we have now, not by a long shot) organizations exist because they continue to serve their customers and create value for them. In the marketplace, *people* come together for cooperation and mutual benefit. This is the basis of the division of labor — specialization and peaceful trade is better than producing everything for oneself.

    With this in mind, I can think of several types of organizations that people in a free society might form to get a better approximation of justice. For starters, in the absence of government-run courts, mediation and arbitration firms could play a greater role in achieving restorative justice.

    Second, if an offender refuses or fails to make restitution to the victim, a credit-bureau-esque organization might document the failure and distribute it to people who are thinking about doing business with the offender. Who would want to do business with a deadbeat? Only other deadbeats, most likely.

    Third, I continue to be excited about the prospects of private security organizations. These firms would be much more interested in achieving restorative justice for their customers, compared to tax-funded police services.

    Believe me, Mark, as a libertarian, my emphasis is always on the individual. But recognizing that free individuals will interact with other individuals and form organizations, I think the role of organizations in a truly just criminal justice systems remains an important question.

    A coauthor and I have a working paper that explores some of these issues.

    Feedback is appreciated!

    Also, you lawyers might like this one, which explores the legal landscape of a hypothetical subscription patrol and restitution company in Texas.

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