In November 2009, thousands of fans jammed Roosevelt Field shopping mall in anticipation of teen idol Justin Bieber. Bieber didn’t make it that day, as the crowd got out of control, causing a near riot. The police then arrested Island Records VP James Roppo and Bieber’s manager, Scooter Braun.
Two and a half years later, the case has been closed, Bieber’s record company pleading guilty to violating local fire codes and the two misdemeanor charges against Braun for refusing to help disperse the crowd being dropped.
This mini drama ended in a plea bargain in which Bieber agreed to make a public service announcement denouncing cyberbullying. “To have someone like Justin Bieber, who is emulated by kids his age across the world, educating people about the dangers of cyberbullying, that’s invaluable,” said Kathleen Rice, Nassau’s DA.
Invaluable but strange. As Criminal law professor Richard Klein commented, “Legally, for him to be involved in the solution with the criminal charges against other people is extraordinary.”
Our criminal justice system—and our ethical system—focuses on personal responsibility for individual actions. If Joe is charged with a crime, you don’t punish Sally. One family member can’t volunteer to serve time for another.
The distinction between individual and collective responsibility is blurred when it comes to monetary payments. If someone jumps bail, it isn’t necessarily the accused who loses money but those who posted the bond; or when a fine is imposed, there is no requirement that it comes from the offender’s bank account.
In the past, personal responsibility was blunted by the idea that families had a collective responsibility for an individual’s behavior. A family was punished for the damage caused, not the particular individual who carried it out. So a family might have to compensate for a murder by giving up one of their own children to be raised by the family that experienced the death. Justice was collective compensation, not individual punishment.
So what is going on in the Roosevelt Field case? If you think that a public service announcement by Justin Bieber will do some good, then society is better served by this than having his company and manager pay a fine or perform some community service themselves. It is hardly a punishment, though, even for Bieber, who will only receive additional publicity through the announcement. If you like the plea as worked out, then you are on the side of justice as compensation; if you think that it isn’t right that Bieber comes out ahead in the deal, then you favor punishment.
There remains the matter of having someone else take a penalty as their own. The idea of personal punishment is rooted in the idea of individual rights, a basic ethical principle of respecting the dignity of each person. Rights and responsibilities are inseparable. So if human rights are valued (as I think they ought to be), then responsibility needs to be personal, not collective.
On balance, the Bieber decision was a mistake. The record company and Bieber’s manager should be punished, not Bieber, even if Bieber volunteers for it.