Pretty much everybody acknowledges that our current criminal justice system isn’t working, though there are as many solutions offered as there are people studying the problems. But if you’re interested in looking at a really outrageous, completely out-of-the-box way a criminal justice system might work, and what the problems of that system might be, Claire North has a novel that’s perfect: 84K.
The premise is that there isn’t jail anymore, at least not for people who can afford to avoid it (so far that sounds familiar, but wait, it gets better). Capitalism reigns supreme, and the idea of paying your debt to society is literal. Every crime has a price, and once you pay the price for your crime, you’re free of all stigma. You can, if you have enough money, get away with murder; all you have to do is pay for it. Of course, if you can’t pay for it in money, you pay for it in service (basically slavery by another name), but if you’re rich, the world is basically your oyster and you can do anything you want (this premise reminded me a little of the setup for good and evil in The Management Style of the Supreme Beings by Tom Holt, only much darker).
Our protagonist is Theo Miller, a quiet man who works at the Criminal Audit Office. His job is to assess the penalties for different crimes, figuring out, for instance, how much a person should have to pay for killing one person as opposed to another. He does not, at least at the beginning of the book, question the whole system. He assesses the penalties and makes sure the miscreants pay them.
But then it becomes personal, and everything changes for Theo, the unexamined system making its inherent problems obvious to him. His former girlfriend, Dani, is murdered, and Theo finds her body, with the hired killer standing over her, calmly calling the police to confess to the killing and to set up his payment for the crime. Suddenly this isn’t another entry on a balance sheet. Now Theo needs to find the person responsible for the woman’s death, and make them pay, in something more than money.
Part dystopian novel, part thriller, 84K (which is the price of Dani’s life) forces us to look at issues of justice, and the question of “paying your debt to society” in a new and darker way.