“The Wire” may be the most powerful series in television history and Omar Little perhaps its most memorable character. Omar, the feared stickup 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, so too did tributes and social media posts featuring quotes from Williams’ many iconic scenes. 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 problems with the criminal justice system is Williams, as Omar, saying: “Conscience do cost.”
Criminal law is predicated on the twin notions that the individual is morally responsible for their actions and that the individual who crosses the line must pay a penalty for their transgression. “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time,” the adage goes.
The reality is far more complicated and tougher for us to swallow. While the individual may be culpable for their specific decisions, the individual does not act in isolation or on an island. We, not the individual, are responsible for the conditions in which the individual acts. Every time an individual commits a criminal offense, it is undoubtedly an individual failure to stay within the bounds set by the law.
But it also is a social failure; we have failed to create the conditions in which criminal behavior may be less attractive or better resisted by the individual. As some in the criminal justice space put it, we have failed to build sufficient offramps away from criminal behavior.
Acknowledging this collective role would require that we bear some weight for the criminal actions of others. To absolve our consciences, we focus only on the individual, exaggerate the difference between ourselves and those who violate the law, and thereby make it much easier to justify lengthy, draconian penalties imposed against them. Freed of the burden of thinking about our role, the conditions in which the individual acted remain largely untouched, perpetuating the cycles of criminality, as “The Wire” makes plain.
Our willful ignorance does not end there. The individual who is sent to prison is not responsible for the conditions of confinement. The warehousing and absence of meaningful support are our decisions. At the same time, we turn a blind eye to the experience of the incarcerated as well as the harmful consequences of that experience. As retired-Justice Anthony Kennedy once observed, “When the prisoner is taken way, our attention turns to the next case. When the door is locked against the prisoner, we do not think about what is behind it.” Those conditions all but assure recidivism upon the individual’s release, meaning the infliction of new harms cannot be attributed solely to the individual once freed.
“We have a greater responsibility,” Justice Kennedy implored. Indeed, we must improve the conditions and resources within the prison environment to activate the capacity of the individual to change and to reduce the likelihood that the individual will commit future offenses when back in society. Even if society cares little for the criminal, we should care about the safety of our family, neighbors and community.
David Simon, the creator of “The Wire,” once said that the series is “not a story about America, it’s about the America that got left behind.” More directly, Mr. Simon noted that “The Wire” brought out from the shadows the “excess people in America,” those who are “undereducated” and “ill-served” to participate in the modern economy.
Williams’ greatest legacy may be that he helped give voice to the forgotten, dismissed and disparaged, which include people who are living in poverty or dealing with substance use disorders, like Williams, or the incarcerated.
The best way to pay tribute to Williams’ work will be to move beyond appreciation for the artist and determine how practically we can uplift and include the very people that Williams brilliantly portrayed. Doing so will require us to come to terms with our own failures and contributions to criminal behavior and destruction of communities. It’s a cost we must bear.
Dawinder S. Sidhu (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an attorney who served as Supreme Court Fellow at the U.S. Sentencing Commission.