Empathy can be a very good thing. It has been demonstrated by exemplary leaders, mentors or some of the people we come in contact with. Even family members sometimes show this psychological skill. For court officials dealing with law offenders, though, being empathic can be a thorny issue.
Cases of sexual offenses in the U.S. that led to sentences deemed “far too light” continue to spark discussions today. The 2014 case of Dallas Country State District Judge Jeanine Howard, who issued a “light” sentence to a 20-year-old alleged sex offender, and the 2013 case, whereby Montana District Judge G. Todd Baugh imposed a 30-day sentence to a teacher who admitted raping a 14-year-old student, who ended taking her life, were met with public outrage.
Beyond what the critical public may believe about the outcome of cases involving big crimes like sexual assault, there may be something more at work before judges hand out the sentence to a wrongdoer – empathy.
The question that comes to mind is whether most judges can relegate their own desires or self-serving interests (if any) to the background before deciding on a case. The answer is a resounding yes if they have one skill or trait.
That key element is the ability to empathize. It is aligned with having a selfless concern for the well-being of others, also known as altruism.
What is Empathy?
Whether for research purposes, for everyday reference, or for use of the judicial courts, the term empathy connotes awareness of and sensitivity to the feelings of other people. Several empathy research papers have noted that it is a vital ingredient of healthy social relationships.
Being able to empathize entails reacting in a manner whereby the appropriate emotion is in response to the other individual’s emotional state. People empathize when they are able to imagine how another person may likely feel in certain situations and they act on that.
Think of disadvantaged or vulnerable people, whether they are young, seniors, or working professionals such as fastfood servers or flight attendants carrying out their duties, who may ease the emotional “labor” or angsts they may be feeling if they are treated in an empathic way.
In contrast, The Dark Knight character Joker, though a fictional character, can very well be a perfect example of a person who is totally unable to empathize. There is just zero positivity or utter lack of ability to empathize in such a character.
Real-life examples may be bosses who refuse to grant a leave of absence to staff employees facing a personal crisis like death in the family or seriously ill family members they need to attend to.
Empathizing With Both the Victim & the Wrongdoer
The line between showing the ability to empathize and exacting the appropriate punishment may sometimes blur. A perusal of some empathy research paper topics may offer some enlightenment.
In the case of the Dallas County judge, the judge empathized with the defendant. She considered the accused as “not your typical sex offender,” who therefore deserved a not-so-harsh sentence, and the aggrieved as not the victim she claimed to be.
As for the Billings, Montana judge who was asked by 33,000 people to resign through a signed petition following the “light” sentence handed to the perpetrator of the crime, the judge seemed to lack the capacity to empathize with the victim.
A similar case sparked public outrage when Montana District Judge John McKeon merely imposed a 60-day jail sentence, along with probation, to a man who repeatedly raped his 12-year-old daughter. While believing that he handed down a just decision, no one at the trial had the guts to speak out on behalf of the 12-year-old girl.
Such cases illustrate how cultivating greater empathy for victims of appalling crimes could have led to a more appropriate ruling, rather than a paltry or “light” sentence for the accused who had admitted, or had been found guilty of, grave offenses.
Yet in other instances, members of the courts can empathize with the accused who were charged with crimes but were innocent. Being able to empathize can help bring about a fairer justice system, with due consideration for both the victim and the accused.
When Empathizing Can Lead to Fairness & Justice
Judges and other members of the judicial system, who manifest the capacity to empathize, stand to improve the overall system. This is because empathizing with the people who deserve such treatment (like in the case of victims who deserve justice or the accused who were just being set up) can significantly reduce biases.
The sad reality is that those individuals who do empathize, as in the case of impartial judges, tend to be viewed by some people as being too weak, soft, or lenient/easy on others. That may not be true, though.
There are empathic judges who can be tough on the inside and who can remain firm when making decisions. What is sadder is that some judges really perceive empathy as a weakness.
Some empathy research paper topics cite that contextual or environmental factors may override someone’s normally empathic nature. Indeed, it can be noted that judges, as with other professions, can display varying degrees of competence, traits and skills.
Some judges have personal biases, assumptions, beliefs and values that can have an impact on their decisions and application of the law. There are those who are not even aware of the importance of empathizing and so become steeped in their biases.
Emphatic judges are those who can ascertain and make sense of the relevant facts and to apply the relevant legal factors, in the end fulfilling, rather than failing in, their role within the judicial branch.
Highly emphatic ones challenge their own preconceptions or prejudices, are able to overcome hatred, and decide fairly. It is this breed that U.S. and other parts of the world are in dire need of.
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