“The Wire” is perhaps the most powerful series in television history and Omar Little perhaps its most memorable character. Omar, the dreaded stick-up artist, was played masterfully by actor Michael K. Williams. Earlier this month, Williams was found dead in his apartment.
As news of his passing spread, the tributes and social media posts featuring quotes from Williams’ many iconic scenes also spread. As someone who has taught, practiced, and written about criminal law, one line stood out. The quote that best reflects the social pathologies depicted in “The Wire” and the deep issues with the criminal justice system is Williams, like Omar, saying, “Conscience costs.”
Criminal law is based on the dual notion that the individual is morally responsible for his actions and that the individual who crosses the line must pay a fine for his transgression. “Don’t commit the crime if you can’t do the time”, the saying goes.
The reality is much more complicated and difficult for us to swallow. Although the individual may be guilty of their specific decisions, the individual does not act in isolation or on an island. We, not the individual, are responsible for the conditions under which the individual acts. Whenever an individual commits a criminal offence, it is undoubtedly an individual failure to observe the limits set by law.
But it is also a social failure; we have failed to create the conditions under which criminal behavior can be less attractive or better resisted by the individual. As some in the criminal justice space have said, we have failed to build enough pathways out of criminal behavior.
Recognizing this collective role would require that we bear some weight for the criminal actions of others. To absolve our consciences, we focus solely on the individual, exaggerate the difference between ourselves and those who break the law, and thus make it easier to justify the lengthy and draconian penalties meted out to them. Freed from the weight of thinking about our role, the conditions under which the individual acted remain largely intact, perpetuating the cycles of crime, as “The Wire” shows.
Our willful ignorance does not stop there. The individual who is sent to prison is not responsible for the conditions of detention. Storage and no meaningful support are our decisions. At the same time, we turn a blind eye to the experience of the incarcerated as well as to the harmful consequences of this experience. As retired judge Anthony Kennedy once observed, “When the prisoner is led away, our attention turns to the next case. When the door is locked against the prisoner, we don’t think about what’s behind it. These conditions virtually guarantee recidivism upon the individual’s release, meaning that inflicting further harm cannot be attributed solely to the individual once released.
“We have a greater responsibility,” implored Justice Kennedy. Indeed, we need to improve prison conditions and resources to activate the individual’s ability to change and reduce the likelihood of committing future offenses once back in society. Even though society cares little about the criminal, we must care about the safety of our family, our neighbors and our community.
David Simon, the creator of “The Wire”, once said that the show is “not a story about America, it’s about America being left behind”. More directly, Mr. Simon noted that “The Wire” brought out of the shadows the “excess people in America,” those who are “undereducated” and “underserved” to participate in the modern economy.
Perhaps Williams’ greatest legacy is that he helped give voice to the forgotten, rejected and maligned, including those who live in poverty or suffer from substance use disorders, like Williams, or incarcerated people.
The best way to pay homage to Williams’ work will be to go beyond appreciation of the artist and determine how far we can elevate and include the very people Williams so brilliantly portrayed. It will force us to come to terms with our own failures and contributions to criminal behavior and the destruction of communities. It is a cost that we must bear.
Dawinder S. Sidhu (firstname.lastname@example.org)) is an attorney who served as a Supreme Court member of the U.S. Sentencing Commission.