Friday, January 04, 2008

Babies and bath water. Some final thoughts.

I can't tell you how many times someone will say to me—after I've voiced thoughts like those appearing in my two posts thus far—"Yeah, well, you wouldn't talk like that if some 15-year-old raped your daughter!" Actually, I hear that every time I make this case. Every time. And the people who say that are correct. I'd probably be out of my mind in homicidal rage.

Which, as I see it, is precisely why we need to take the emotion out of sentencing and the criminal-justice system as a whole. Victims may be the very last people who should have a say in what happens to perpetrators.

I can sympathize with the blood lust of people who've lost loved ones to violence. But should the judicial system really be reduced to a means of achieving a sanitized version of the extreme vengeance an angry victim might exact on his own? (This is also one reason among several why I've never quite understood so-called victim-impact statements. People have different ways of handling grief, and I cannot fathom why a loved one's subjective experience of loss, or the efficacy/intensity of one's courtroom declaration of that loss, should have any bearing on the sentence imposed. If the mother of a sexually assaulted daughter falls into hysterics during her appeal to the judge, is that judge supposed to pronounce a harsher sentence on the defendant than if the woman had remained composed? Is the wife of a murdered young stockbroker whose two kids have lost their daddy somehow entitled to see the killer receive sterner punishment than the wife of a struggling pizza deliveryman who had no kids? A crime is a crime, and there are specified penalties for it. Punishment should be meted out based solely on a rational, deliberate analysis of the facts involved. I would argue that that's how relevant laws should be made, too.)

Lest we forget, the historic legal dichotomy between juveniles and adults considers the fact that young people are not yet "fully formed emotional wholes," as one state code used to put it before that state's legislators fell in step with today's more hard-line approach to juvenile justice. Adolescence is a time of rebellion, experimentation; a time of boundary stretching. Above all, it is a time of learning. What is the worth of "learning from your mistakes" if the very first mistake takes away your freedom, therefore making further learning, in essence, pointless? (And what do we expect them to learn during decades of confinement alongside older habitual felons?)

Despite the current mood of cynicism in matters of rehabilitation, we would do well to ask ourselves whether we're prepared to abandon that component of the justice system in our search for some magic anti-crime pill.

14 comments:

RevRon's Rants said...

What he said!

Mary Anne said...

Steve said,
" (And what do we expect them to learn during decades of confinement alongside older habitual felons?)"

I do not know if you have noticed it, but it seems that prison and jail have become rights of passage for some. I have read a number of books on gang and prison life and it has almost become a way of proving yourself. That creeps me out quite a bit. Is society as a whole glorifying criminal behavior? If you look to a lot of the news stories, I would have to say "yes."

Look at how many DUIs there have been in the media. James Frey bolstered his "memoir" by giving false information of jail time.

When I was growing up, which was not that long ago, any stint in jail was an embarrassement. Now it seems almost trendy to be arrested.

Have we taken away the stigma of being arrested?

Anonymous said...

From Steve: Adolescence is a time of rebellion, experimentation; a time of boundary stretching. Above all, it is a time of learning. What is the worth of "learning from your mistakes" if the very first mistake takes away your freedom, therefore making further learning, in essence, pointless?

Sadly, these days, it's not. Adolescence is a time of helicopter parents raising perfect children who cannot learn from their mistakes because they never seem to make any. Parents who plant themselves before teachers, coaches, even personnel directors who might possibly hire their young genius - and make demands.

Not quite on point but it's all related in terms of past behavior predicting future outcomes, no?

Steve Salerno said...

Let's face it, Mary Anne: We've pretty much taken the stigma away from everything. Haven't we? This applies well beyond the limits of crime and criminality. Does anyone even bat an eye anymore when a couple "get pregnant," then decide to get engaged? (And of course, today, everyone is already living together throughout the period of the engagement.) I'm not saying this is necessarily wrong; I'm not rendering judgment. I'm simply saying that many behaviors that used to be stigmatized no longer are.

Mary Anne said...

Steve said:
"I'm simply saying that many behaviors that used to be stigmatized no longer are."

Sounds like a good arguement for stigmatizing certain behaviors.

It seems there are two extremes going on at the same time. On one hand you have future employers, spouses, and what not checking you out via the Internet and on the other hand you have the media giving tons of press to criminal behavior. Now Columbine was horrible, but they did achieve fame in the American conscious.

If I was Paris Hilton's mother, I would be horrified and ashamed that my daughter was behaving that way and the same for Lynne Spears. Instead they come out and say they are proud of their children! For what I ask? Their kids didn't win the Noble Peace prize or are working on a cure for cancer so what is there to be proud of? Sex tapes and irresponsible behavior?

Is it any wonder young adults are confused? Why can't anyone say "hey, what you are doing is wrong and harmful to others?" Maybe we should be more judgemental.

Mary Anne said...

Anon said,
"Parents who plant themselves before teachers, coaches, even personnel directors who might possibly hire their young genius - and make demands."

Anon, you raise a good point about why people have children at all. I think a lot of parents try to live their lives THROUGH their children. I've read quite a bit about how Paris Hilton wanted to be a veternarian, but her mother (a thwarted actress) pushed her into modeling. I have heard the same for Lindsey Lohan's mother. Can children really live their parents' failed dreams?

Anonymous said...

Steve,

I'm a bit confused here, we've gone from talking about kids who commit crimes so bad that the courts consider them to be adult enough to know that what they have done is wrong and you're calling them mistakes of growing up. Am I missing something?

Steve Salerno said...

Anon, well, I go back to the hypothetical I posed in my previous post: What do you want to do with the 7-year-old who brings a gun to school and blows his classmate's brains out? Lethal injection seem fair to you?

Some kids make more serious mistakes than others. Personally, I think we just have to swallow hard and accept it as the price of a humane society. But I'm open to other ideas.

Anonymous said...

I think lethal injection for adults who leave their guns lying around would - no?

Steve Salerno said...

We obviously have very different ways of looking at this, Anon, and I'm not sure that either of us really needs to "prevail." And of course, we could veer off into the whole issue of gun violence here. But I'm not sure that your response addresses the problem in any kind of final/meaningful way, either, because what are we to do--again, hypothetically--about the kid who "simply" stabs his classmate with a knife he found in the kitchen? Lethal injection for the wife/mother who failed to lock up the knives?

Leaving snideness aside, I stay with the view that there has to be some balance and moderation in our approach to punishment. Especially when kids are involved, but even in dealing with adults. I know this a mentality that will infuriate many people (including some in my own family), but I'm not sure we should ever lock up anyone and throw away the key. Not for a first offense, anyway. Shouldn't there be some hope of redemption?

mikecane2008 said...

>>>Which, as I see it, is precisely why we need to take the emotion out of sentencing and the criminal-justice system as a whole. Victims may be the very last people who should have a say in what happens to perpetrators.

No, this is simply wrong.

You are wounding the victim -- or survivors -- again.

Let me recycle your words this way:

>>>Which, as I see it, is precisely why we need to take the emotion out of The Final Solution and the Jewish extermination system as a whole. Jews may be the very last people who should have a say in what happens them.

Oh, the Nazis were very emotionless as they went about their business of committing the worst horrors a human being could commit against others.

Your series has been thought-provoking but the overall tone is of the cliched Ivory Tower that sets itself apart from we poor mortals who live outside its moat.

Which is very surprising given your very human concern when it comes to SHAM.

Steve Salerno said...

Mike, you know, though I had a knee-jerk response to the examples you posed, I hesitated a long time before deciding to reply. For one thing, as usual, I wanted to see if anyone else desired to carry my water here. (I am usually more interested in what others have to say than what I have to say in my own defense--a tendency for which I've sometimes been criticized.) But I think in the end this is a battle I'm going to have to fight in my own voice. So...

I believe that laws should be made, as much as possible, in a detached, emotionless fashion, in recognition of the fact that we don't really know what's right and what's wrong. I'm probably going to catch hell for this, but even in the case of the Holocaust, it still comes down to a matter of opinion: There is a substantial body of people, alive right now, who do not think the Holocaust was an especially bad thing, and would welcome more of the same. (I refer not only to so-called radical Islam, but probably much of standard Islam as well, and I'd guess a fair number of people who live somewhere in the Mideast besides Israel.) Now, are those people "wrong" to feel that way? Was Al Qaeda "wrong" to take down the World Trade Centers? Who says? Sure, WE say, because we were the victims. But that doesn't make us objectively right. We Americans certainly have no qualms about killing people when we think it's justified (e.g. Hiroshima, currently in Iraq, Uday and Qusay, etc.) How do we know that God, if there is one, isn't actually Allah, and is on bin Laden's side in this dog-fight?

What does that have to do with laws? Simple. We need them, I realize, to prevent civilization from devolving into un-civilization. But we should make laws, again, with humility--with the understanding that we're only making them for pragmatic purposes, in the spirit of what we THINK is "good and just." We shouldn't get overly emotional about it.

Further, and I've used this example before, how do we know that a child who is killed by a given murderer wouldn't have grown up to be an Adolph Hitler or a Charles Dahmer in his own right? How do we know that even a horrific crime might not in some way provoke another event that--long-view--benefits mankind (at least, again, in the narcissistic way that we view a benefit). We don't know any of these things. Do we?

I know you think I'm getting very far afield here, but when I think about laws, I keep thinking about how malleable they are. I keep thinking that what they really reflect is consensus...and consensus is not truth! It's just consensus.

Even within my own head, I can be totally secure in writing a book like SHAM--calling it as I see it--but also realize that I'm just calling it as I see it. That doesn't make me "right."

I could write a whole lot more, but I think that's a mouthful for now. Does it make any sense?

P.S. I don't want to hear from anyone accusing me of being a Nazi. I am personally appalled at what happened in Germany during the Hitler era. But that doesn't make me right!

Anonymous said...

Steve,

Speaking of Jews, there is a very interesting concept in the old testament of a "city of refuge". This was a special place that people who had killed by mistake could run to and be safe in until it was safe for them to come back. The example they use is "if a woodcutter chops down a tree and one of the branches fall off and kill someone". They can run to this place of safety otherwise they will be in danger of the victim's family members revenge. They can then come back when its safe for them to return.

Steve Salerno said...

I like that idea, Anon. I think we all need a place where it's safe, and not just when we accidentally kill people.