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Monday, October 3, 2005

Do the crime, do the time

The New York Times has been running front-page editorials (disguised as news stories) the last couple of days about how many people are serving life sentences, without possibility of parole, in U.S. prisons. Some convicts rot behind bars from the time they're teenagers, even though they become model citizens in the joint.

The stories (which apparently will continue in a series) are filled out with photos of dead prisoners' coffins, and sympathetic profiles of the poor inmates whose only crime was being an accomplice to an armed robbery that turned deadly. In almost every case, the reporter insinuates that the prisoner may not actually have been guilty of the crime of which he or she was convicted. Today, on the second day, the story also begrudgingly included a picture of one of the victims -- a nice grandma who had her throat cut on a Super Bowl Sunday by one of the Times's youthful profilees.

You know what? I am buying not a single word of it. As my ex used to say, "If you're looking for sympathy, it's in the dictionary between 'sex' and 'syphillis.'" The facts of the story are very revealing, but the not-so-subtle message is bunk.

Comments (22)

Yesterday's showcase was a fine young man who pumped three shotgun shells into his 14-year-old girlfriend -- she had the nerve to tell him she was pregnant -- and then drowned her. But that's the kind of thing that can happen in a country that chooses not to regulate the ownership, possession and use of . . . water?

Yeah, and since he's singing Kumbaya in the slammer now, he should walk. I wonder what the victim's father thinks. The Times doesn't want to talk to him.

What exactly is the not-so-subtle bunk message?

Did you actually read the article Jack? ;)

Here's what the victim's father thinks.

"So exemplary is his prison record that when Mr. Thompson, now 50, asked the state pardons board to release him, the victim's father begged for his release, and a retired prison official offered Mr. Thompson a place to stay and a job.

"We can forgive him," said Duane Goodwin, Charlotte's father. "Why can't you?"."

That said, I agree with you Jack. I don't have a lot of sympathy for pre-meditated killers. Call me old-fashioned, but this kid is lucky he didn't get the death penalty.

One of the truisms of arguments like these is that those with opinions don't know both sides of the issue. The law and order crowd reflexively comes out against parole, saying the perpetrators or unlucky participants (not always perpetrators, but punished as such) are lucky they didn't get the death penalty and should be happy with a true life sentence.

This kind of logic can be applied to all defendants, not just those convicted of violent crimes. Why shouldn't EVERY convict (even white collar criminals) get the maximum, then?

The answer is that that the devil is in the details-every case and every defendant is different and deserves a seperate evaluation. If the punishment should fit the crime it should also fit the criminal.

If you work in the criminal justice system you constantly see how a defendant's poverty, lack of education, lack of maturity or just bad luck play a huge role in getting someone where they are. This should be considered in sentencing and parole decisions. Consider the criminal, not just the crime.

You don't have to be a bleeding heart to use such common sense, just realize every case is different and needs to be dealt with as such.

I STRONGLY disagree GM, that we have to consider a person's luck, education, and poverty level when they've murdered/raped/molested someone. In my view it is exactly that sort of "wiggle room" that resulted in a large amount of ridiculously light sentences - which in turn prompted a call for mandated minimum sentences. I couldn't care less if someone had "bad luck" or didn't finish the 6th grade when they put a bullet through the head of a loved one. Enough with the excuses - aside from a few folks with mental disabilities, EVERYONE knows that it's wrong to kill someone. I'll grant you that there can be instance with extenuating circumstances, but those are in the extreme minority.

i would defer to the wishes of the victim's personal representative(s), out of sympathy to their loss. similarly, it should be their call whether the state seeks to impose the death penalty.

sympathy for those who are wrongly convicted is appropriate. i can also find sympathy for some of those serving draconian sentences under drug laws. but accomplices to an armed robbery that ended in a homicide? fuhgeddaboutit.

The Times points out that the US has a disproportionately large population of life inmates who offended as children. The comments here go a long way to explaining why that may be -- there seems to be considerable popular sentiment for removing these offenders from society through the death penalty or life imprisonment. Other countries seem to favor other solutions, or perhaps have a different view of the criminal responsibility of children.

the individual facts of one case do not support the denialof parole in all cases.

Most would conclude on emotional reasons, if not logical, that someone who shoots his pregnant girfriend with a shotgun deserves no parole decades later.

However, the cases presented by the NY Times the day before cut the other way.

Do young teens who follow older peers into a crime that unpredictably leads to murder and are sentenced to life in prison under a felony murder statute even though the younger teens held no gun and pulled no trigger deserve life in prison w/out parole?

The problem may be with the concept of felony murder, under which you can be convicted of murder even though you had no intent to murder, did not actively participate in the murder yourself, and had no knowledge that a murder was even going to occur.

Still parole is one way to ameliorate the harshness of the law on a case by case basis.

For that reason I think it makes sense.
Then there is the question of age? Is someone 14 yp as culpable for their actions as someone 24 yo, or 34 yo?

I think not.

I understand the need to treat a child as an adult for crim law purposes when the child in question is in a violent gang or has otherwise indicated they are likely to remain a threat to society for the rest of their lives.

But inevitably for political or career advancement reasons, prosecutors will apply a law intended to combat one type of criminal behavior (violent teen gangs or use of teens in drug trade) to another typeof behavior the legislators never intended to punish,
and for that reason again, parole is one way to ameliorate the harsh impact of an otherwise reasonable law.

"We can forgive him," said Duane Goodwin, Charlotte's father. "Why can't you?"."

Because it's not up to you, Duane. One of the reasons these people are locked up is to send a message to the people who are after my daughter next.

I didn't find the piece offensively editorializing. But maybe the question should be in the context of public safety rather than personal sympathy. Are Americans any safer in having the highest prison populations in both absolute and proportional numbers in the world? That's a long argument -- and a lot of public dollars.

just realize every case is different and needs to be dealt with as such.

American society tried this for a century, and the majority of the population decided that it didn't work.

"Are Americans any safer in having the highest prison populations in both absolute and proportional numbers in the world?"

Safer than what? Certainly not safer than Japanese, Swedes, Canadians. etc., etc., etc.

One problem with determinate sentences, and strictly denying early release, is it cuts off a check-and-balance to prosecutorial power.

There are few, if any, controls over how a zealous prosecutor frames a crime. What to most may be a minor incident can be transformed via indictment into a major felony entirely at the discretion of the prosecutor; a sentence appropriate to the actual circumstances of the crime, imposed by a judge in full command of all the facts, acts as a safety value to this problem. The possibility of parole, granted by an administrative body also with command of all the facts of the case, provides a second safety value. The more we erode those safety valves, the more unchekced authority we invest into our prosecutors.

Many people who bemoan judicial determination of sentences often fail to acknowledge this growing power in our nation’s prosecutor offices...well, at least until those people are indicted in Texas on campaign finance and money laundering charges.

at least until those people are indicted in Texas on campaign finance and money laundering charges.

Or busted for satisfying their Oxycontin jones...

In the end mercy is more powerful than righteousness.

Yeah, I read at least one of the articles, and considered viewing it skeptically. There is something easy and superficially strong feeling about saying "let the bastards rot in jail for the rest of their lives."

But I just don't have it in me to deny the possibility of repentance or forgiveness, the possibility that human beings actually change their souls as they grow, and I think it speaks volumes about the sorry state of our society and culture that we have abandoned these as possibilities.

As the article in the NYT pointed out, our punnishment times are far longer than those in Europe. Do we have a better society because of it? No we do not.

Do we have less crime? No we do not.

No instead, the same harsh punitive and unforgiving attitudes, the same fundamental lack of cultivation of the divine attribute of mercy, create the throwaway psychopathic murders and the extreme punitive system into which we throw them.

America sometimes seems like it's one big violent punishment festival, afflicted by violence, and able to conceive only of violence and punnishment as a solution to violence, and then when punnishment doesn't work, reaching desperately for some new higher level of punnishment to inflict.

Ever notice how abusive parents imagine that if they hit the child harder it will finally "get the point?" Welcome to America's criminal justice system.

I think the article's point is well taken. We are a society that is out of its collective mind and soul.

able to conceive only of violence and punnishment as a solution to violence

Violence and punishment are not the same thing. America is to be commended for not using violent punishments.

The punks in the gushing Times profiles clearly deserve the serious punishment they are getting.

There is another divine attribute known as justice. Look into it.

Hey, nobody gets to be more in favor of justice than me. Go Justice! And, yet, look, there's her pal Mercy!

If you look at the planet earth you find some societies, like our own, far prefer punishment to other means of setting the world right when violence unravels it.

... and yet we aren't a happier or better society for all our long term confinements, and all our executions.

Surely you would agree that locking a human being in a cell for a lifetime is a punishing, severe thing to do? It meets my definition of violence, however we may claim it is justified by the violence done to others.

Lifetime confinement is animated by the spirit of punitive retribution. Yet is anybody made happier by it? Is anybody made whole by it?

Certainly not the parents of that girl, who judged that their daughter's killer deserved mercy.

What is the state that it should claim to represent the dead girl's interests better than her own parents? (No, I don't think that justice is to be defined by victims and families... the state has an interest, of course, and yes confinement has its uses.)

But the contrast between families' efforts (I would surmise) to find healing by offering forgiveness, and the state's rigid insistence that its long ago decision of "life imprisonment" is eternally correct... is striking.

Justice AND mercy... that's the whole deal. Those of us in the middle of the Jewish Days of Awe between Rosh HaShannah when the world is alleged to be judged and Yom Kippur when forgiveness is said to be granted, are meditating on this very issue with extra intensity at the moment....)

And the article is simply questioning whether we've got the balance right. Compare ourselves to others and you have to wonder. Listen to the families of some victims and you have to wonder.

Because it's not up to you, Duane. One of the reasons these people are locked up is to send a message to the people who are after my daughter next.

Yeah, I don't know. This assumes that someone out there who is considering committing murder is going to read about a 50-year-old getting out on parole and think, "Hey, if I was going to get life, I wouldn't do it -- but wait, you're telling me I might do only 35 years if they're a completely exemplary 35 years, I learn a trade, and I generally manage to engineer such an amazing turnaround that the victim's own family lobbies for my release? Sweeeeeet, where's my gun?" It also assumes that the potential killer in question is up to date on the general makeup and inclinations of his state's parole board (or, more precisely, and with a far greater degree of difficulty, the makeup of the parole board members 35 years or so into the future from the date of the crime).

When someone kills, either he thinks he isn't going to get caught, in which case the possible penalty doesn't matter; or he isn't thinking about the consequences, in which case -- well, the possible penalty doesn't matter.

Are you suggesting that we should just forget trying to make the sentences fit the crimes, then? Or maybe forget about having a criminal justice system entirely?

Deterrence is one of the legitimate goals of criminal punishment.

Yes, Jack, that's precisely what I'm suggesting -- that we discard the criminal justice system entirely, in favor of anarchy. Because, you know, that worked out really well in New Orleans.

No, what I'm suggesting is that the difference between 35 years and life is highly unlikely to affect the level of deterrence that a possible prison sentence provides. Moreover, we give prisoners absolutely no incentive whatsoever to try to improve themselves if they're never going to see the outside anyway.

There does seem to be a logical fallacy present in suggesting that someone wants to chuck the criminal justice system entirely because they disagree with one aspect of it. Making one's argument for them and then disproving it is just arguing with oneself.

The problem is that there are two separate issues being conflated into one. The first issue is whether someone who brutally and savagely murders their teenage girlfriends should spend their life in jail. The second is whether such punishment has a deterrent affect on potential murderers. Saying that you don't believe the punishment will deter future criminals is not the same as saying this particular criminal should be set free, nor is saying that this criminal should stay in jail forever the same as saying life sentences are deterrent.

I happen to believe that people who savagely kill their teenage girlfriend should spend the rest of their life in jail and I don't particularly care if that makes them good citizens while in prison or not.

But I don't think such punishments deter future criminals in the least. Harsher punishments have done nothing in our country to deter crime - particularly violent crime. All the wishing in the world won't make it so. We are an incredibly violent society with an outrageous level of violent crime so clearly the harsher penalties haven't done any good. People who think it is logical that life sentences would keep anyone from killing also think it is inherently illogical to commit violent crime. You can't use the logic of a rational person to predict irrational behavior. Other societies have done a much better job of minimizing violence and we should copy their approach to deter future criminals. But that doesn't mean we should open the cell doors of those who are currently behind bars.


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