We all know people who are living immoral lives committing crimes but getting away by bending the law towards their side due to wealth and influence. When ever I see or hear something like this I keep telling my self that karma will get them even though the legal system cannot. But then again I keep question as to why we need a legal system at all when we know that there is a natural system or justice called karma?
There are two theories about criminal law:
- absolute theory: You should punish someone because his action is intrinsically bad and therefore he deserves to be punished. (refers to the past)
- relative theory: The purpose of a law is to prevent a crime from happening. Therefore a penalty on certain actions is reasonable because it prevents 'criminals' from doing it again and scares people off. (refers to the future)
So to come to your question:
- A legal system (if it follows the relative theory) is useful at least to that extend that it will try to prevent crimes (kamma of body and speech, if you want so) and create an environment in which you're conditioned to restrain from certain actions. So the great benefit is that your being conditioned not to do bad deeds (at least body and speech).
- If somebody committed a crime and has been punished for it, this sounds to me like a clear coherence between cause and effect. Being punished by a government institution obviously is a result of your past actions, since you wouldn't have been punished if you didn't commit a crime. Kamma doesn't have to be something mystical, it's just cause and effect.
Think of the legal system formed as a natural part of the cause-and-effect.
If your family and friends were tortured you would quickly become a part of this web of cause-and-effect and fight for justice, too, whether by being a cop, criminologist, etc... The energy created from the criminals act compelled certain people to fight, becoming part of the karmic play called justice system.
Anyway, this whole fatalistic idealism is also one-sided and Buddha did not advocate it as complete. Buddha said to never attach to extremes in thinking.
To forcibly NOT have a justice system because of fatalism is attaching to an ideal and incorrect thinking (and not just because the Buddha said not to... ANY extreme thought is metaphysically bound to incorrectness).
The person holding back the energy to fight for justice even though they are motivated to is still participating in karma.
Let what happens happen, justice system just happens to happen naturally, just like maybe one day when biological achievements become more affordable a system of eugenics will or electric cars will take over when they become affordable, etc.
Many Christians believe God or Jesus will correct the evils of the world but there has never actually been a time in history (for which we have real evidence) when this has actually occurred. Often views about karma are similar.
In Buddhism, there is the word 'kaya', which is often translated as (although it can mean) 'the physical body'. In reality, the word 'kaya' means 'collection' or 'group' & generally refers to the five aggregates (physical body, feeling, perception, mental formations & sense consciousness). Every single action (act of kamma) is made up of a collection (kaya) of mental & physical components, which also manifests as 'self-identity-birth or 'jati'.
Thus, Buddhism teaches the results of kamma will only be reaped when the 'kaya' comes to an end & there is 'self-identity-death' (marana). For example, when a murderer is caught & imprisoned, their kamma & kaya of killing come to an end & their self-identity as a 'murderer' experiences 'death'. Thus, in prison, the ex-murderer is 'born anew' or 'reborn' with a new self-identity as a 'prisoner' & a new 'kaya' dominated by regret, remorse & even painful punishment, thus reaping the kamma they have sown.
What I am saying is 'kamma' will not take care of things, just as 'God' or 'Jesus' will not take care of things, because the kamma of the politically powerful must stop before they will reap the bad consequences.
Generally, people of normal human conscience (which Buddhism calls 'humans') quickly reap what they sow thus they grow in goodness & wisdom by learning from their mistakes (or bad kamma).
But psychopaths & sociopaths that Buddhism calls 'gods' ('asura') do not have a normal moral conscience thus do not reap their bad kamma unless they are stopped by a legal system or revolution.
I have heard conspiracy theorists allege individuals such as David Rockefeller, George H. W. Bush, George Soros, etc, are engaged in evil deeds. But these individuals are alive & kicking, well into old age, with David Rockefeller now 100 years old due to multiple heart transplants.
If one wants to believe like a Christian or Muslim there will be a Day of Judgment where God or kamma sorts it all out, that's fine. It will help the mind be free from suffering over the evils & horrors of this world. For example, in Asia, many Buddhists believe a child is abused or raped because of evil deeds the child committed in a past life. Thus, those Buddhists free their mind from the suffering of righteous anger of injustice. They abide in non-attachment towards abused & raped children. But such beliefs about kamma won't help the world or those children.
The legal system is one of the many ways that karma can work. If you rob someone and end up in jail, that jail sentence is one of the ways in which you may experience the fruits of your actions. If you rob someone and don't get caught, you can experience the consequences in some other way. Karma has many ways to operate, most of which are beyond our understanding.
I have been interested in a very closely related but more general question. What would an institution of social justice look like in a Buddhist dominant culture? There is a large amount of thought on this that has been published in the last 15 to 20 years. One way to rephrase the question is there a social philosophy that is compatible with Buddhism. Rather than name a long list, I will only mention David Loy as a good starting point. As I understand Buddhism, Buddhism is about personal liberation and that it is up to each individual to take up the challenge. If everyone were a Buddha, then very likely there would be no need for any fixed social justice institution. If the majority are still in ignorance, then what? I am still searching for a good answer to that question. If anyone answering the above initial question has a really excellent reference to this more general question, please include it in your response to the initial question. It seems to me that organized force with the threat of violent or near violent retribution is antithetical to Buddhism. But surely, there must be something in an interim period where enlightened people are a minority.