I don’t believe in punishment.
At least, not punishment that in any way tries to “balance the scales” or calls for “an eye for an eye”.
Because the scales are can never be balanced, and what is harm is done can often never be truly undone. Someone else’s physical harm does not reduce my harm. There is only moving forward, and preventing it from happening again.
Yes, I believe in criminal penalties for the guilty. But not to punish. Penalties are necessary and appropriate for two reasons: deterrence and public safety. “Payback” or vengeance itself should not be a factor.
Empathy is the Exception
It takes an unusual case to see ANY sympathy directed toward someone accused of a crime that resulted in the death of an innocent person.
A rare exception is the case of Officer Eric Wayne, a police officer in Lowell. He is accused of crossing the yellow lines while drunk, hitting another car head on, killing the driver, and seriously injuring a passenger. Officer Wayne also had an OUI arrest last year that had not yet been resolved in court.
Yet officer Wayne has a lot of supporters in his community. He is extremely well liked, and a pillar of the local community. When the usual angry outbursts hit social media, Wayne had defenders who came out.
Any positive or sympathetic comments for someone accused of causing someone’s death is very rare.
It takes an exceptionally special defendant for this to happen.
Anger and Cries for Extreme Punishment Are the Norm
Why is a Desire for Vengeance Considered Justice?
Typically in these cases, the public outcry is loud and callous, and with strong cries for extreme punishment.
Another recent story was of a man killed in an accident caused by an (alleged) drunk driver in Mansfield. A young man, Nicholas G. Salvo of Norton, slightly over the limit of alcohol, struck and killed another driver.
In reading the details in the reporting, angry commenters were everywhere. The anger is understandable. It is absolutely awful for an innocent man to be killed by someone else’s negligence, in what should be a preventable or avoidable situation. Drunk driving is a bad decision, and the harmful or tragic results of that certainly makes someone criminally negligent.
A strong percentage of internet commenters believe that being found guilty of a vehicle homicide should mean a sentence of life in prison:
The man accused of this charge faces at least 1 year in prison as a mandatory minimum, and up to 15 years for Vehicular Homicide while under the influence of alcohol. If he is indicted for Manslaughter by Motor Vehicle, it could be 5-20 years. Yet many people seem to think even these penalties are not enough.
Treatment of Prisoners
Other recent stories that highlight the way we express casual cruelty were about the botched executions in Arizona and Oklahoma. There is no doubt the crimes these men was convicted of were beyond heinous. Those convicted or brutal, cold-blooded murders are going to generate very little sympathy.
One can argue that the death penalty is a fair punishment in some cases. (I don’t agree with the death penalty at all, but there are some reasonable people to who). But effectively torturing someone to death is absolutely horrifying in it’s own right.
However, you don’t have to look hard to find plenty of people who will say he “got what he deserved”, or that a causing this person’s suffering is either irrelevant or desirable.
I disagree, and so does the US Constitution. No one deserves that, and the 8th amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, for good reason.
What About Post-Release?
In Massachusetts, there was a law that just passed that reset the parole eligibility for people who had been convicted of murder as juveniles. The courts had originally found that sentences of life without parole were unconstitutional (that pesky “cruel and unusual punishment” clause again). These people were deemed eligible for parole in most cases after serving 15 years, but the new law bumps that up to 20-30 years before being eligible for a parole hearing.
Again, the outcry from the public was broadly negative. If someone has been punished and released, they need to be given a chance to return to society with something resembling a clean slate.
Does the phrase “I did my time” have any meaning or value anymore?
What’s the point of punishment if society doesn’t forgive?
— PrisonReformMovement (@PrisonReformMvt) July 31, 2014
Why Do We Punish?
As I said, I think criminal sanctions and penalties are necessary under the law for 2 reasons:
- To deter people from committing future crimes for fear of consequences, and
- To insure public safety from those who would continue to harm.
Deterrence is an interesting concept. What percentage of crimes committed are sufficiently premeditated that a person would really worry about the consequences of being caught? Many criminal acts are impulsive, borne of desperation, or happen because of rage or emotional distress.
Still, deterrence is necessary and makes sense, both on an individual and a cultural level. It wasn’t too long ago that no one took very seriously crimes like drunk diving or domestic violence. But we’ve decided as a society that these behaviors are unacceptable, and impose criminal penalties to deter people from committing them.
And if we put a few bankers in jail, we might deter future serious while collar crime and harm to our financial system, but we apparently don’t think that is as dangerous as drunk driving.
2) Public Safety
You can make your own determination as to whether there is pure evil in the world, or some people have a dangerous and incurable mental illness. But there is no doubt there are people who are clearly sociopaths, with no regard for the welfare of other human beings.
That number could be up to 3% of the population, which is millions of people. Not all of them are dangerous criminals, but those who commit crimes and choose to prey upon other people need to be locked up and kept away from the rest of us. On that, most everyone can agree.
If a punishment does not provide deterrence or enhance public safety, does it make sense?
Let’s consider the young man accused of the vehicular homicide while allegedly drunk. If we assume he is basically a decent person, who made a horrible, tragic, and deadly mistake by driving drunk, is justice served by him serving 10 years or more in prison?
I don’t think so. He probably face a lifetime driver’s license revocation after any prison penalty. And his entire life is forever altered and haunted by this terrible lapse in judgement. This is not to minimize the impact of his actions, and the fact that an innocent bystander is dead.
Yes, he would need to face some serious penalty for the deterrence factor so that others will be mindful of the huge risks in getting behind the wheel while intoxicated. But beyond that, he is almost certainly no continuing threat to public safety.
Similarly, there are often people who are caught up in drug busts who are clearly not professional criminals. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time, or trusted a friend who should not have been trusted.
And there are countless stories of kids who commit terrible crimes when they are juveniles, or still young enough to have impulsive and malleable brain development. How much do long prison sentences for them help achieve either deterrence or public safety?
There is plenty of evidence that the more time someone spends in prison, the more institutionalized they become to a life where criminal activity is the only alternative for them when they get out. And that benefits no one.
Every Tragic Accident Does Not Have An Appropriate Criminal Remedy
The purpose of criminal penalties is not to “pay for” the crime, or the damage done. There are a number of terrible cases every year, where there is simply no acceptable outcome after an accident. One that made news was State police officer Sgt. Douglas Weddleton killed on the highway, just doing his job, when struck by Anthony Perry, Jr. Perry was convicted of motor vehicle homicide by negligent operation, and sentenced to a year in jail.
The case is heartbreaking, and you can only feel immense sympathy for the victim’s family. And that angry is completely understandable, and beyond judgement. When the victim’s wife says “There is no punishment great enough, which you could serve, that would be justice.”, we know that is true for her.
But the criminal justice system doesn’t, and can’t work that way. Tougher motor vehicle homicide penalties in horrible accidents, are not going to prevent these tragedies, pay for the crime, or serve justice.
Motor vehicle homicide is a crime anyone could commit. With a moment’s distraction behind the wheel, and just a split second of carelessness, any of us could be responsible for another person’s death. And making someone serve a 10 year jail sentence for an accident instead of 1 year is not going to change that fact.
Would I Feel this Way if Someone I Cared About Was Killed By A Drunk Driver or a Violent Crime Victim?
I would like to think so, yes.
It is not exactly the same, but my grandfather’s life was cut short by a terrible accident. He was in excellent health, and out for his daily walk when he was struck by a car while crossing the street. He never recovered, and spend the last few terrible months of his life in a hospital bed.
There was no serious investigation by the police, so it is hard to know how much blame the driver had in the accident. We were shocked and angry. But ultimately we decided there was no legal remedy that would make a difference, so we didn’t pursue the matter further, or even learn anything more about the driver or the accident. Nothing was going to give my grandfather his life back. He had all medical care that was needed.
I completely respect the right for someone who has been through a horrible and traumatic personal or family experience to feel differently. They are entitled to that. And a desire for punishment or even vengeance is not unnatural or irrational.
But I don’t think it is the best way for a society to act.
I’d be happy to hear about any opposing views or other opinions in the comments.
Image: Paul Prud’hon – Justice and Divine Vengeance Pursuing Crime – wikimedia.org