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HEARTS OF THE CITY | Navigating the Real World

May 15, 1996

A rotating panel of experts from the worlds of philosophy, psychology and religion offer their perspective on the dilemmas that come with living in Southern California.

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Today's question: Desperate people do desperate things, such as the 71-year-old grandmother accused of attempted armed robbery of a gas station. Relatives say she was distraught over a foreclosable debt on her home and an IRS lien on her husband's Social Security check. If true, how is justice best served?

The Rev. Ignacio Castuera

Senior pastor, Hollywood United Methodist Church

Justice has several definitions. Unfortunately in America most people favor the idea of retributive justice; [if] she did something wrong, punishment must fit the crime and justice will be served. Justice can also mean the greatest good for the largest number. The latter notion would lead to questions such as: How should the most vulnerable members of society, children and seniors among them, be treated? How can we minimize the possibility of negative conditions for poor seniors? How can we ensure meaningful and dignified aging? According to some studies, seniors in other democratic nations fare better than seniors in this, the greatest democracy in the world. Is justice being served in our country?

Maher Hathout

Physician, Islamic ethicist and spokesman for the Islamic Center of Southern California, Los Angeles

From our perspective, anyone who is compelled to commit a crime because of real need should not be punished, at least in full. We look for the causes that put that person in that situation, because that is indicative of a lack of justice in society. It is very unfortunate that the crime alleged here is armed robbery. Had it been just robbery I would have said without hesitation that she should not be punished. But she is accused of using a gun. That may mean that innocent people were in jeopardy. In this case, she should be held accountable. Still, the punishment should take her circumstances into account. Ultimately, the institutions, individuals, or society who put that lady in this position are accountable.

Rabbi Joel E. Rembaum

Senior rabbi, Temple Beth Am, Los Angeles

Desperate things done by desperate people can result in great tragedy. What would have happened had the 71-year-old grandmother fired the weapon she was carrying and killed another human being? There are many desperate people in our society. Should we advocate allowing each of them to take the law into their own hands to solve their own particular problems? Then everyone in our society would be in a desperate situation. Justice is best served when people take responsibility for their own actions and when our public institutions are sensitive to the needs of the people they serve and help them out of their desperation, instead of forcing them deeper into it.

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Compiled by Larry B. Stammer, Times religion writer

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