Friday, November 15, 2013

Whose life is it, anyway?

As a society, we need to decide whether or not we hold people individually responsible for their actions. I'm not talking so much philosophically or psychologically, but more in the strict legal sense. For the sake of expediency, I almost don't care what the final verdict isthough I do have my gut feelings about what it ought to be, and if you're a regular you can guess which way I lean. I'd just like to see us come down firmly on one side or the other and stick to it.

In particular we need to make this decision with regard to teenagers. Are they liable for the crazy stuff they do? Are they culpable when they transgress? It makes no sense to me that we consider them legally responsible in some settings and yet seek to shift or even eliminate blame in others.

The impetus for today's thoughts is this case: 19-year-old Jacquelyn Birk got behind the wheel of her car and then died in an accident last December after being supplied with liquor by an older male friend, then 21-year-old James Forte. (To be clear, he didn't pour it down her throat; he bought it for her.) Yesterday Forte was sentenced to up to two years in prison for his role in the tragedy, even though he'd also "begged Birk to stay at his house when she dropped him off that night." She drove off anyway with a BAC of .2two-and-a-half times the legal limitas well as a baby of two months' gestation in her womb. So even if she hadn't died in that tragic wreck, she was jeopardizing the health of her unborn child just by choosing to drink at all. (Her ironic career path, had she lived: She wanted to be a psychologist for troubled youths.) 

Every day in this great land of ours, a juvenile is tried as an adult for some crime. We process as many as a quarter-million kids as adults each year.* Some of these offenders are as young as 13 or 14. And some of those are among the estimated 3000 kids sentenced to life in prison (although thankfully a goodly number of sentences are apt to be reviewed after the recent Supreme Court decision). In such cases the prosecutors and courts don't seem to care much about the youth of the perp, or the context: whether the teenager grew up amid some horrific domestic situation, whether he was subject to potent peer pressure from a gang, whether he was chronically bullied, whether there were other serious background circumstances that predisposed him to do what he did. Courts don't even seem to care whether or not the kid was drunk or high at the time. He did the crime, he can serve the time.

But in the case at hand, a (then) 21-year-old is being punished for the actions of a 19-year-old who drank herself into a stupor, ignored his pleas to sleep it off, then drove off with an innocent baby "on-board." Does this all add up for you?

* The stats here are a bit murky. I've linked to a study compiled by an advocacy group, whereas actual Bureau of Justice Statistics numbers are far lower. However, the BJS stats (dating from 1998) reflect cases only where juveniles were transferred ("waived") to adult courts; this is misleading because in a number of states felonies committed by perpetrators as young as 16 are automatically heard in adult court. A more comprehensive BJS study is underway.  

P.S. 6:10 p.m. And you know, here again we have a case where a drunken woman is presumed not to be accountable for her behavior or her fate. We saw the same reasoning in several recent cases where men were charged with rape after having sex with drunken women. I blogged about it here. I don't think the case at hand is about gender, really, but you have to wonder if there isn't just a wee bit of paternalism involved: the assumption that women just naturally turn to jelly around a man and will basically follow his lead, whether it comes to sex or Sangria. Therefore women need to be protected from men and even shielded from their mere influence. Or, to look at it another way, maybe there's the assumption that men themselves are expected to look out for women, and are derelict in their duty when they're in the presence of a woman who drinks to excess and then has sex or gets behind the wheel of a car, etc. I would think Feminists would be up in arms about such notions.


Anonymous said...

And you say you're not a misogynist. Have you ever written a single post favorable to women's interests?

Steve Salerno said...

I oppose whatever strikes me as PC-motivated tyranny. And nowadays much of that is directed toward men.

Jenny said...

Misogyny, are you kidding? Anonymous, are you male or female? Steve, maybe you ought to consider disallowing people to come on here hidden behind a cloak of total anonymity and yet with their ignorance in full view. Nothing misogynistic about what you said. To the contrary, you are right on about the paternalism bit. Thank you for continuing to explore these important issues. I also see what you mean about age and the letter of the law. I guess limits need to be set and yet when you consider that a person is old enough to vote and fight foreign enemies yet too young to drink alcohol legally, you can't help but wonder about the logic behind it all. Yes, we do need to hold each other responsible for our behavior, to answer your first question.

Steve Salerno said...

Jenny, thank you for your thoughts. Be prepared to be branded a traitor (or having something even worse said about you) if our Anon is still lurking in the background.

Look...I can see where some people might think it's inappropriate for me to post stuff like this, since men have had the "upper hand" for so long--and I don't deny that. OTOH, two wrongs etc...

I have the same feelings about the affirmative action-based racial quotes that are now, thankfully, falling out of favor. It makes no sense to me to take some white kid who has worked his or her ass off to get good grades, and deny that person college admission (or a scholarship) because he or she is the wrong color in terms of the school's diversity aims. It's shameful that blacks suffered centuries of discrimination, but that doesn't mean that whites should be discriminated against now. (So now I guess that in addition to being a misogynist, I'm a racist too.)

Jenny said...

Yes, Steve. You are just a stereotype and not a real person. ;) Misogyny and racism are ideas based on beliefs, and affirmative action is a controversial idea that is not exactly black and white. If we could all just be content with ourselves and with each other, none of this would matter. We could talk without being offensive, listen without being offended; we could let down our guard and not worry about other people's opinions. Maybe some day....

Bethany said...

What bothers me Mr. Salerno is that you always seem to end up on the oddball or unpopular side of an issue. Are you one of those people who just gets off on being "contrarian"? If so, to those of us who value the right things and the right perspectives in life, and try to teach our children to do right as well, people like that are very upsetting, always standing up for ideas that are obnoxious or unworkable or just plain objectionable.

Try taking the "road more often travelled", you might enjoy it!