Before we begin tonight, I would like to note that it's hard to type while huddled in a mess of blankets, wearing hand warmers, and with a dog between me and the computer keyboard. (And the dog just licked my fingers. As I was typing. Just fyi.) The space heater on the coffee table aimed directly at me isn't doing much good in this ridiculous, uninsulated, drafty old monstrosity I call home.
As you might have gathered, I am a bit of a news junkie and I particularly follow the crime stories. I know my fellow readers aren't coming from the same knowledge base I am. I read a story and know it's describing a severity level 7 nonperson felony or 3 misdemeanors or an off-grid crime. I also usually know right away what the sentence will be roughly. (It doesn't hurt that in my state, sentencing is grid-based with numbers pre-set by the legislature so there's not a lot of leeway for the judges. They can depart, but they have to make specific findings.) I know that battery is a pretty low-level offense that probably doesn't involve any actual harm. (If there were injuries, it would be aggravated battery.) I know cops always arrest people on the most ridiculously, over-the-top charge they can and then let the prosecutors and judges reduce the charges appropriately. I know that cops do this and then make sure to arrest people on Saturdays whenever possible because then they can keep a defendant in county jail for 2 nights and get more money from the state. (In Kansas, you can bail out over the weekend on a misdemeanor, but have to wait for a business day to go before a judge if you're arrested on a felony.) I know that most other people don't know these things.
But, still, I can't help but be surprised when I read these stories about a criminal sentencing and then read the comments of people who think the sentence is ridiculous and a sign that our community/state/world isn't just soft on crime, but is run by the criminals. As if we are all doomed because someone convicted of battery and criminal damage got probation. (Which is the exact sentence the legislature recommends for that conviction event.) Do people really think college students should go to prison for getting into fights? For first offenses? For things where no one really got hurt?
Most people in most criminal courts throughout the country are sentenced to probation. And that's exactly how it should be. Most things that are crimes really aren't so bad that they necessitate cutting the perpetrator off from society for some period of time. If people really knew more about how the criminal justice system works, definitions of crimes, etc., they'd get it, right? I have to believe they would. I can't face the thought that even if people knew that the statutory definition of battery is "a non-consensual touching done in a rude, insulting, or offensive manner," they might still think people convicted of battery should all do hard time in jail. Which would be silly because we've probably all committed misdemeanor battery at least once in the last week. (Remember when you grabbed that sheet of paper out of your annoying co-worker's hand? Battery!)
It seems like in this day and age, it shouldn't be too hard for the public (or at least the interested readers on a newspaper website) to have more knowledge so they can better understand why a district court judge sentenced someone the way s/he did and what the charges actually mean. The criminal statutes are all online, after all. So perhaps the news stories could contain helpful links to the relevant statutes? Or at least to the criminal code where a truly interested reader could find the specific statute on his/her own? Maybe the crime section could include a permanent PDF of the sentencing grid, so people could see what sentences to expect for, say, a severity level 5 person felony for a person with no criminal history. (Or maybe it would just help if people wouldn't spout off uninformed opinions but would instead seek out knowledge?)
I guess I really want two things: for the general public to have a better understanding of what criminal law jargon means and for them to have more realistic expectations of what an appropriate sentence is for a particular set of facts. And for people to stop thinking incarceration should be the answer to every single marginally criminal incident ever. I probably want too much.