Monday, March 24, 2008

Here's the scenario: 24 year-old college student out drinking one Saturday night. Makes the very stupid decision to drive home. On the way home, he hits something. Not sure what it was, he keeps going. When he reads about the 22 year-old who died in a hit-and-run accident early in the morning, he realizes what he's done and turns himself in to the police. At a jury trial, the jury cannot find beyond a reasonable doubt that the driver was intoxicated, so found him guilty of the misdemeanor vehicular homicide and fleeing the scene of an accident. Today, he was sentenced to 2 years probation with 90 days in jail. If he gets revoked, he gets another 21 months in jail. While out, he has volunteered to speak publicly about the dangers of drunk driving. The guy has repeatedly expressed deep remorse about the tragedy.

Naturally, the knee-jerk, hard-on-crime-without-any-rational-thought crowd is incensed. How can he only get 3 months in jail for killing someone? We need to write our legislators! We need to repeal our judges and vote out our worthless prosecutors! This is a travesty! I swear I think there are some folks who wouldn't be satisfied with anything less than the death penalty. A life for a life, right?

I am so damn sick of the tough-on-crime mentality that demands ever longer prison sentences. This mentality has given us the largest prison population per capita in the world with absolutely nothing to show for it. If people would think a little bit about what we really can achieve through sentencing, rather than just try to extract every possible ounce of revenge, we would be a lot better off as a society.

See, I happen to think this sentence was just, even ideal. What possible good would come from throwing this guy in prison? Yes, he has a debt to society that he needs to repay. But there are other ways to repay that debt beyond serving time in prison. There are some people who can best repay that debt outside of prison. Really.

This guy's a college student. If he can finish his school, he'll have more earning potential. He'll be able to get a job, maybe buy a house, contribute to the economy and society in general. And he can still speak to groups about the dangers of drinking and driving. This way, the taxpayers don't have to support him, too. You'd think that would have some sway with the all-people-who-make-mistakes-are-evil-criminals-beyond-any-redemption crowd.

What would change if he spent years in prison, even 5? Well, he wouldn't finish his college degree for years, if ever. He would have far fewer job opportunities. He would have to explain to every potential employer the 5 year gap on his resume. His friends would have moved on. All making it that much more difficult for him to reintegrate into a normal life. (And taxpayers would have paid to house and feed him for all that time!) Isn't he far more likely to have contact with the criminal justice system again under this scenario?

And what would we accomplish by sending him to prison for years? Absolutely nothing that anyone does can ever bring back the young man who lost his life. And nothing can ever make it fair. It will never be fair that this guy's alive and the other one's dead, so let's stop trying to use criminal punishments to make things "fair." Ain't gonna happen. So I just don't see the point of ruining another young man's life.

Instead, let's mete out punishments that accomplish a realistic, and worthwhile, goal. Let's use the system to make as many mistake-makers and criminals into productive members of society as possible. We actually can't lock up everyone.

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