September 23, 2018

GROSKAUFMANIS | Land of Second Chances

Print More

Two years ago, while sitting on a roof in Collegetown, I saw a girl run barefoot down Catherine Street holding an open handle of Absolut while zig-zagging away from a cop who, from my vantage point, was palpably frustrated but remarkably patient. I couldn’t see what happened when they reached the bottom of the hill, or if the girl — probably drunk and potentially underaged — got into any kind of trouble. But if she did, it was probably a muted version of the kind of punishment one might receive outside this unusual land of second chances.

Relative to other places, there seems to be little consequence for “bad behavior” at Cornell. Sure, on any given weekend in Collegetown you may see an officer lecturing a freshman about an open container or someone being written up for peeing in public, but for the most part, illegal behavior here — in this uniquely privileged, unusually wealthy bubble we live in — seems to happen with near impunity.

A friend of mine told me last week that she overheard a group of guys, who she knew to be sophomores, having a heated debate on the merits of “tough on crime” policing in a Collegetown bar. The irony of a bunch of 19-year-olds using fake IDs while discussing “crime and punishment” over a round of illegally purchased beers is both obvious and unsurprising. And still, in the minds of many, the laws that students break in college are separated from the laws that others break elsewhere, even when they include the exact same actions. When other people do it, it’s “crime.” When we do it, we’re “having a good time” or “growing up.”  Different words for the same behavior, an unfair double standard. As a consequence, many of us wrongly build our conceptions of crime within a framework that doesn’t include ourselves, because the framework of punishment so often doesn’t either. This becomes problematic when, 10, 20 years down the line those sophomores from the bar become our lawyers, legislators and decision-makers.

Cornell crime statistics from 2017 show that, for Liquor Law Violations, there were 170 referrals but only 13 arrests on campus (including residential facilities). In 2015 and 2016, referrals similarly outnumbered arrests. When I first sifted through these stats, I encountered my first question: what is a referral? The answer being that it’s something that exists for college students. And yet despite its prevalence in the crime statistics, the word referral only appears in the 46-page campus Code of Conduct twice.

On the Judicial Administrator’s website, an overview of Cornell’s Disciplinary System notes that “Cornell’s governance of community conduct is distinguishable from society’s regulation of conduct through criminal and civil laws, regulations and ordinances.” That same website has a library of short stories and songs statedly intended to encourage introspection in students who have made “questionable choices.” One prompt, accompanying the song “Roar” by Katy Perry, asks students to “discuss personal growth, development of voice and values, especially in light of feeling repressed.”  I don’t want to be dismissive of the rehabilitative potential of music, but I do think it’s notably unusual for legal adults to have the opportunity to write about a Katy Perry song as part of any disciplinary moment.

Meanwhile, in an increasing number of cities throughout the United States, simple behaviors — often associated with homelessness — like sleeping on the street or in one’s car have been criminalized. Fifty-three percent of U.S. cities now outlaw the sitting or laying in particular public places and in thirty-three percent of cities it’s illegal to loiter — a word which takes on different definitions in different places — throughout the entire city. I think that we, as students, citizens, and potential future policymakers, should recognize the fact that this double standard is unfair, that we have blind spots because of it and that a safety net exists in spaces of privilege while tightropes exist elsewhere.

It should be noted that even within spaces like Cornell, there’s varied risk and concern from student to student. While talking to one of my friends about this column, she mentioned that, as an immigrant and first generation student, she learned early on that her peers didn’t share the same apprehensions about getting in trouble that she did. “When everyone was ordering fake IDs freshman year, besides the fact that they’re, like, super expensive, all I could think of was how much work I had to do to get to Cornell and how dumb it would be to get in trouble over a piece of plastic that gets you into bars.”  She said, noting that she felt especially vulnerable to punishment.

The double standard in punishment is one that I admittedly have no absolute prescription for besides, for now, realizing and caring that it exists. The problem here isn’t second chances themselves, it’s the fact that not everyone appears to be viewed as equal candidates for them.

Jacqueline Groskaufmanis is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. The Dissent runs every other Monday this semester. She can be reached at jgroskaufmanis@cornellsun.com