Private Justice and the New Vigilantism of the Left

In the 1970's, Hollywood produced a number of movies that drew from a frustration that the criminal justice system was broken.   Specifically, a surprisingly large number of people felt that due process protections of accused criminals had gone too far, and were causing police and prosecutors to lose the war on crime.  In the Dirty Harry movies, Clint Eastwood is constantly fighting against what are portrayed as soft-hearted Liberal protections of criminals.  In the Death Wish movies, Charles Bronson's character goes further, acting as a private vigilante meeting out well-deserved justice on criminals the system can't seem to catch.

There are always folks who do not understand and accept the design of our criminal justice system.  Every system that makes judgments has type I and type II errors.  In the justice system, type I errors are those that decide an innocent person is guilty and type II errors are those that decide a guilty person is not guilty.  While there are reforms that reduce both types of errors, at the margin improvements that reduce type I errors tend to increase type II errors and vice versa.

Given this tradeoff, a system designer has to choose which type of error he or she is willing to live with.  And in criminal justice the rule has always been to reduce type I errors (conviction of the innocent) even if this increases type II errors (letting the guilty go free).

And this leads to the historic friction -- people see the type II errors, the guilty going free, and want to do something about it.  But they forget, or perhaps don't care, that for each change that puts more of the guilty in jail, more innocent people will go to jail too.  Movies cheat on this, by showing you the criminal committing the crimes, so you know without a doubt they are guilty.  But in the real world, no one has this certainty.  Even with supposed witnesses.  A lot of men, most of them black, in the south have been put to death with witness testimony and then later exonerated when it was too late.

This 1970's style desire for private justice to substitute for a justice system that was seen as too soft on crime was mainly a feature of the Right.  Today, however, calls for private justice seem to most often come from the Left.

It is amazing how much women's groups and the Left today remind me of the Dirty Harry Right of the 1970's.  They fear an epidemic of crime against women, egged on by a few prominent folks who exaggerate crime statistics to instill fear for political purposes.  In this environment of fear, they see the criminal justice system as failing women, doing little to bring rapist men to justice or change their behavior  (though today the supposed reason for this injustice is Right-wing patriarchy rather than Left-wing bleeding heartism).

Observe the controversies around prosecution of campus sexual assaults and the bruhaha around the video of Ray Rice hitting a woman in an elevator.  In both cases, these crimes are typically the purview of the criminal justice system.  However, it is clear that the Left has given up on the criminal justice system with all its "protections" of the accused.  Look at the Ray Rice case -- when outrage flared for not having a strong enough punishment, it was all aimed at the NFL.  There was a New Jersey state prosecutor that had allowed Rice into a pre-trial diversion program based on his lack of a criminal record, but no one on the Left even bothered with him.  They knew the prosecutor had to follow the law.   When it comes to campus sexual assault, no one on the Left seems to be calling for more police action.  They are demanding that college administrators with no background in criminal investigation or law create shadow judiciary systems instead.

The goal is to get out of the legally constrained criminal justice system and into a more lawless private environment. This allows:

  • A complete rewrite in the rules of evidence and of guilt and innocence.  At the behest of Women's groups, the Department of Justice and the state of California have re-written criminal procedure and required preponderance of the evidence (rather than beyond a reasonable doubt) conviction standards for sexual assault on campus.   Defendants in sexual assault cases on campus are stripped of their traditional legal rights to a lawyer, to see all evidence in advance, to face their accuser, to cross-examine witnesses, etc. etc.  It is the exact same kind of rules of criminal procedure that Dirty Harry and Paul Kersey would have applauded.  Unacknowledged is the inevitable growth of Type I errors (punishing the innocent) that are sure to result.  Do the proponents not understand this tradeoff?  Or, just like the archetypal southern sheriff believed vis a vis blacks, do women's groups assume that the convicted male "must be guilty of something".
  • Much harsher punishments.   As a first offender, even without pre-trial diversion, Ray Rice was unlikely to get much more than some probation and perhaps a few months of jail time.  But the NFL, as his employer (and a monopoly to boot) has a far higher ability to punish him.  By banning Ray Rice from the league, effectively for life, they have put a harsh life sentence on the man (and ironically on the victim, his wife).  They have imposed a fine on him of tens of millions of dollars.

Postscript:  For those who are younger and may not have experienced these movies, here is the IMDB summary of Death Wish

Open-minded architect Paul Kersey returns to New York City from vacationing with his wife, feeling on top of the world. At the office, his cynical coworker gives him the welcome-back with a warning on the rising crime rate. But Paul, a bleeding-heart liberal, thinks of crime as being caused by poverty. However his coworker's ranting proves to be more than true when Paul's wife is killed and his daughter is raped in his own apartment. The police have no reliable leads and his overly sensitive son-in-law only exacerbates Paul's feeling of hopelessness. He is now facing the reality that the police can't be everywhere at once. Out of sympathy his boss gives him an assignment in sunny Arizona where Paul gets a taste of the Old West ideals. He returns to New York with a compromised view on muggers...

I guess I was premature in portraying these movies as mainly a product of the 1970s, since this movie just came out.

Inevitably necessary note on private property rights:  The NFL and private colleges have every right to hire and fire and eject students for any reasons they want as long as those rules and conditions were clear when players and students joined those organizations.  Of course, they are subject to mockery if we think the rules or their execution deserve it.  Public colleges are a different matter, and mandates by Federal and State governments even more so.  Government institutions are supposed to follow the Constitution and the law, offering equal protection and due process.


  1. Matthew Slyfield:

    "While there are reforms that reduce both types of errors, at the margin
    improvements that reduce type I errors tend to increase type II errors
    and vice versa."

    I do not believe that this is strictly true of the criminal justice system. The reason for this is that nearly every type I error is also inherently also a type II error. If you convict an innocent person of a crime, then by definition the real guilty party has gone free.

  2. J_W_W:

    The Equalizer is technically a reboot of the 80's TV series of the same name. So IMHO it has some of the same DNA that the Dirty Harry movies had.

  3. memelo2:

    Not necessarily. Often there just is no crime at all. Let me give you two examples fashioned after the original post.

    1. Southern state, 1950: A black guy smiles at a white girl. Her brother sees it and reports a case of molesting. The sheriff is all over it. Accusation, trial, verdict, type I error.
    2. California, today: A guy and a girl do the modern USA college thing. Lots of alcohol, hard partying, sleeping around. Later the girl has regrets and reports a case of rape. The internet is all over it. Accusation, trial, verdict, type I error.

    In both cases there is no type II error. No real guilty party goes free, because without a crime, there is no guilty party.

  4. johnson85:

    "A lot of men, most of them black, in the south have been put to death with witness testimony and then later exonerated when it was too late."

    Isn't that an odd statement to use right after your fake but accurate post?

    No doubt there have been black people convicts of crimes and put to death erroneously in large part because of racism. But have a lot of them really been exonerated? I thought the reason the guy from Texas executed for burning his house with his daughter in it or so much coverage was that it was the best case anti death penalty activists could make for an innocent person being executed. And even that one was not certain enough to claim exoneration I don't think.

  5. Daublin:

    Part of the issue is that voters often don't know how the existing justice system works. They'll just go, I'm against rape, and so I should obviously support ways to punish rape. They fail to consider the existing system, much less try to understand its strengths and weaknesses.

  6. Gil G:

    Wasn't Hollywood channelling the views of Righties in which the cops had to do everything by the book lest the criminal walked free on a technicality? It seems Righties got their wish that the cops are more heavily armed, can act with impunity and will rarely be fired for abuse of their position.

  7. Matthew Slyfield:

    Ok, that's true, but I don't think it's as common as you claim and still, assuming an actual crime was committed a type I error necessarily includes a type II error, but the reverse is not true.

  8. Nehemiah:

    Then there is the bad actor who steals a little, does a knockout to an unsuspecting citizen when the mood strikes him, does a little crack, but never quite gets himself on the police radar screen. Then one day he is rounded up for a crime he didn't commit and as luck would have it the victim picks him out of a lineup. Is he a type 1 error? Is he an "innocent" person even though he didn't commit this particular crime? Would society be served by taking him off the street? On some level is this not justice? Bad karma coming back around?

  9. Mike Powers:

    Keep in mind that this comes from the same place as Uber and AirBnb; the idea that if you don't like the rules or find them burdensome then you should just ignore them.

  10. skhpcola:

    You really are an absurd leftist turd, if you actually believe that "righties" ever wanted the police to be able to act with impunity. Your side and its filth hate the police because you trashy assholes hate authority. People on the right want laws to be followed and bad behavior punished, regardless of the actor. The same principle applies to your politicians...bad (and illegal) behavior is admired and rarely punished.

    Of course, you'll try to claim to be agnostic on liberal and conservative issues, but your history has proven you to be a garden-variety, leftist twatnozzle. You, Benji, Zach, Larry Gross...the whole Klan of Stoopid, wreaking derp-worthy, content-free comments on blogs for a half decade.

  11. bigmaq1980:

    This sounds a whole lot like the left's "living Constitution".

    Like your parallel to the 1970's vigilante movies, the "living Constitution" snowball may well have been unwittingly started by the right...

    We should keep this in mind whenever we say or think "There ought to be a law for ... (fill in the blank)".

  12. obloodyhell:

    }}} since this movie just came out.

    This is a remake of an 80s TV series, in case you did not know. It's not a completely vigilante supporting concept (haven't seen the movie).... In the series, there was no question of the righteousness of the victim, or the wrongness of the perp. The best description of the series is that Edward Woodward was The Good Guy in the same sense as Jim Phelps, of Mission Impossible, was The Good Guy.

    Like Superman, they always knew Right From Wrong, "by definition".

    As far as it being "new", no, there's the series "Leverage", itself a kinda-sorta-probably spinoff of a BBC series, "Hustle"

    And I'm sure I can find many more recent variants on Death Wish in the last 30 years, to say nothing of the 3-4 direct sequels to Death Wish....

    And what are Superhero movies but vigilante movies?

  13. obloodyhell:

    Huh? Yes, there have been loads of cases, many of them using new DNA techniques, where those incarcerated have been exonerated in every sense of the word...

    Did you have a rational point you wanted to make, here? Or were you just arguing for the sake of making nitpicking arguments?

  14. obloodyhell:

    I think there are lots of women who regret getting drunk and having sex. The fact that the reason for getting drunk was to give them the testicles to relax their morals and have the sex they wanted is beside the point. They still want to blame something other than themselves for their perceived moral failure. The Cosmo crowd is more than amply ready to blame men for such lapses, since, to them, everything wrong in the world is the fault of men.... "...and here's a nice article on how to improve your blowjob techniques..."

    Irony? YES!!!

  15. obloodyhell:

    }}} People on the right want laws to be followed and bad behavior punished, regardless of the actor.

    I would not go quite this far, but they are certainly much more ashamed when they ARE shown to be hypocrites. The Left simply goes, "Look! A panda!!".

  16. obloodyhell:

    The universe is in charge of Karma, not us. To be willing to "look the other way" assuming it's Karma is not a great notion of public policy, I'd argue.

    Because black people have either done some reallllll bad things in the universe, or they've got LOTS of bonus points stored up in their favor.

    The same for Jews...

  17. obloodyhell:

    The Equalizer wasn't a DH type of series, though, it was much more of a "quid pro quo" type series. He tended to not so much met out justice himself, as make sure that the bad guy didn't avoid it. Usually it was still society that metted out the actual punishment. The bad guy was taken off to jail despite their machinations, or found themselves flat busted broke despite having socked away all their ill-gained wealth in the Grand Caymans, usually by returning it to those the perp had stolen it from (and there was, as Warren suggests, never any question about what they'd done as being unrighteous).

    I'm thinking it was actually (distantly) based on something on the BBC. That's why they picked a well-respected Brit, Edward Woodward, for the role, and not some American Cowboy type.

  18. Matthew Slyfield:

    True, but how many of those actually result in criminal charges. Probably not that many.

  19. markm:

    The Victorian/early 20th century advocates of turning private moral matters into laws were Progressives. Not the right, but the left.

    Your confusion comes from the more recent "social conservatives", those who long for the "good old days" when the government could stick it's nose into your bedroom and your reading material without having to worry about constitutionality. It's also often the major problem of the Republican party and the whole political right wing. "Conservative" hasn't had a fixed definition since the Divine Right of Kings and the Established Church were tossed out, and so the political right has become an uneasy coalition of those who wish to return to John Stuart Mills' liberalism, those who wish to return to a mythical moral America, those who just plain emotionally align with some version of the right without ever thinking their position through, and the unprincipled politicians and other public figures [1] who play to them.

    [1] Is Rush Limbaugh really a conservative, or does he just play one on TV? I've been unable to discern any consistent principle in his rants.

  20. Gil G:

    So how do you know that cops are acting illegally? It could argued few to no people are illegally treated but the Libertarians come out of the woodwork and say that certain activities shouldn't be illegal.

  21. bigmaq1980:

    "'Conservative' hasn't had a fixed definition since the Divine Right of Kings and the Established Church were tossed out"

    Indeed, there is some truth in saying that what was left vs right in the political sense has changed.

    Wasn't it the Republicans that Lincoln led who abolished slavery against a Democrat led South? Yet, today, they get the "racist" label from Democrats.

    To be Liberal in times past was to be what we today have to call "Classical Liberal" or "Libertarian" in some circles, as the term "Liberal" has morphed into synonymity with "Progressive".

    Most left right discussion tends to be fixed on notions captured in this chart:

    I find that inadequate. What might be better is something like the Nolan Chart or variations to it, though one can find points to argue/quibble on each. Here is a sampling that might be useful for future reference...

    Nolan Chart:
    Hyper-Nolan Chart
    3D Nolan Chart:
    Modified Nolan Chart:
    Politics Bell Curve:
    Levels of Government Intervention:

  22. David Shea:

    You might be interested in my case, which amounts to Private Justice being used to evict an 80-yr-old New Yorker from his home of 21 years. You can reach me at If anyone out there could help me with legal help, it w'd be much appreciated. Thanks.

  23. dad29:

    The phenomenon you describe has another manifestation: the "SWAT"ting of people who open-carry. This activity, utilized by anti-gun extremists, has apparently led to the death of a fellow who was carrying a BB rifle through a store (intending to purchase it). He was gunned down by police following a phone-call alerting them to a 'dangerous' situation in the store, a man 'brandishing a rifle' in a 'menacing' way.

    The man was not 'open-carrying' in the ordinary sense--but Twitter comments on people who DO (carrying a holstered pistol at a grocery store, e.g.) are very clear: the anti-gun folks were hoping that the man would be shot by police, and some suggested using the "SWAT"ting technique on him.