CROSS-EXAMINING CRIMINAL JUSTICE

Our current punitive response to criminal behavior will one day seem as
astute as dunking witches to see if they float.

by CB Bassity

     I want to say I was dumbstruck (but this piece proves otherwise) yesterday when I read the local paper’s front-page story about a meth-lab bust that put a twenty-something couple in jail.  Actually, very little in the story is striking.  In our town of 16,000, some people are bound to be lured by “easy” money into cooking methamphetamine.  What struck me was the assistant district attorney’s response to the bust, especially since I happen to know the two kids involved.
     The assistant D. A. noted evidence at the scene that pointed to earlier—and ongoing, in other words—production of meth.  And, reflecting the community’s hard-line stance on drugs, the paper said he “will not allow the pair to enter a guilty plea to lesser charges.”  The paper also informs us that “the charge of manufacturing methamphetamine carries a penalty of 20 years to life.”
     Of the arrested couple, the 27-year-old guy is one of four kids raised by a single dad who seemed always to be desperately treading water with them.  A baseball player, promising at the local level, this guy with a cockeyed but innocent grin seems to have inherited more from his wildly irresponsible mother than from his dad; he seems to have naively sabotaged every opportunity that’s come his way.  The 23-year-old girl was part of my daughter’s circle for a while in high school.  Pretty, with an artistic touch, but flighty, she has bounced from one boyfriend and pizza-serving job to another, spiraling downward rather than up.  Before yesterday, however, neither of these kids, nor the two together, would have suggested to anyone with even the most apprehensive imagination that they were drug-manufacturing fiends preying upon society.  Parking-ticket scofflaws, maybe.
     But the prosecutorial arm of our local government wants to—I can’t say for sure—keep these two from doing further harm?  Send a message to others considering illicit drug manufacturing?  Surely we can find a better alternative than prison for keeping two unruly kids from cooking meth.  And, if the “message” approach were effective, these kids themselves would have heeded it.  Sending a message, the deterrent effect, is a flaccid fallacy.
     Two things I don’t mean to say here:
     First, that because these kids are white, middle-class, and from “good homes” that they should be exempted from punishment that others deserve.  No.  A while back when a similarly white, middle-class kid from a good home—he is, I know his mother—was let off with probation after shooting another kid in the chest—shooting! with a 22 rifle—in a dumb, drunken late-night argument over a girl, I was relieved and pleased for him and his family.  But at the same time, I was incensed.  I shared the rage of a woman who wrote to the newspaper that her son, also raised in a good home but in the “wrong” neighborhood, was doing prison time for much less than a bullet’s damage to society.  Every person who makes a foolish mistake deserves better than disappearing into a hell-hole behind prison bars.  It serves our common interest, all of us, to practice understanding and a certain measure of forgiveness.
     And second, I don’t mean to condone or downplay the seriousness of criminal wrong-doing.  Yesterday’s other front-page story was that a prominent middle-aged attorney was sentenced to 20 years for first degree manslaughter, for having drunkenly crossed a center-line and hit another man’s car head-on, killing him in the midnight wreck.  When it happened, the attorney had tried to refuse the blood-alcohol test.  I remember thinking: that guy better not get off for this, especially just because he knows the ropes.  He seemed genuinely remorseful at the sentencing hearing.  Yet the dead man’s sister said: “we’ve been sentenced . . . we’ll never see him [her brother] again.  That’s a sentence that can’t be matched by this court.”  In her shoes, I can’t believe I’d feel any different.
     But feelings aside, what does criminal justice accomplish the way we commonly practice it?  Take an 18- or 20- or 27-year-old kid who did something dumb, and put him in prison for five, ten, or twenty years, and what do you get?  Do you later release him “rehabilitated?”  Or does he come out a bitter thirty-some-year-old, less able to manage in civil society than when he went in?  Every one of us learns something every day.  We may learn something positive and worthwhile or we may be strengthened in our misunderstandings, but we will learn something.  What do you learn, crammed into a prison with other hurt and hurtful people, often professionally criminal people?  What do you learn when guards, other inmates, and the public imply or insist repeatedly that you are bad news?
     Some of the people we send to prison are bad news.  And, offhand I don’t know what is the best way to deal with them.  But we haven’t yet found it.  In terms of protecting society’s long-term interests, slapping punitive prison time on criminals is about as effective as slapping a mosquito that gave us malaria.  Regardless of whether it’s a product of genes, experience, or both, criminal intent or predilection does not wither in prison, although it may flourish.
     In the latest hundred years, psychologists, sociologists—and neurologists especially—have discovered much about human behavior (and promulgated some bunk along the way).  Yet we continue to respond to criminal behavior much as our great grandparents did in the nineteenth century.  Pay attention to the ridiculous euphemisms attached to the business of locking people away, like “rehabilitation” and “correction.”  And consider the drive in the 1980s to cut spending on educational opportunities for prisoners, since we deemed them undeserving of such privilege—education being the number-one most effective tool against recidivism.
     It seems to me that, too often, sending a criminal to prison is like beating up a victim of cerebral palsy.  One has a miserable physical affliction that we wouldn’t dream of compounding; and the other, a miserable psychic condition—yet when the criminal behavior resulting from it
affects the rest of us, we are so infuriated that we ache to complicate and exaggerate it.  In the
mistaken hope of—what—protecting or avenging ourselves?  We maintain this illusion only by seeing “criminals” as some other kind of breed, people apart from the rest of us.
     In the 20th century we quit treating the insane like criminals; and we learned (most of us) to quit treating gays and lesbians like the criminally insane.  In this century we ought to learn how to better deal with “criminals.”

© 2000 CB Bassity.  All Rights Reserved

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