Friday, June 17, 2005

Criminal Alimony

     A Georgia Supreme Court case was decided yesterday that made Delta Airlines executives breathe a sigh of relief. They ruled that airlines are not liable for traffic accidents caused by serving their passengers alcohol. The case in question involved a young man who was permanently disabled by a drunk driver. Jack Townsend was a 25 year old college grad who was getting certified to be a teacher. Today he still suffers from sever orthopedic injuries, has short-term memory loss, and works at a Chick-fil-A serving drinks. The driver was sentenced to probation, alcohol treatment, and 100 hours of community service, at the urging of Townsend's obviously very compassionate and forgiving family. But the thought struck me - Townsend will spend the rest of his life in crippling disability, probably never marry, never retire, never have kids or grandkids. After a few years having a blemished driving record, the driver will walk away free to forget that the incident ever occurred.
     Americans' attitudes towards justice have always fascinated me. Punishment has gone through many incarnations over the past few hundred years. (incarceration incarnation contemplation?) Lately, the buzzword has been "Victim's Rights". When it was a new concept in 1981, it referred to the right of crime victims to be informed, present, and heard at criminal proceedings. Today, there is a greater emphasis on the being heard part, implying (or sometimes just outright stating) that victims should have a say in a criminal's punishment. It certainly begs the question, "Why do we punish criminals?" IMNSHO, there are 3 reasons. 1) To deter the criminal from doing it again; 2) To discourage other potential criminals from trying the same thing; and 3) To satisfy a desire for revenge. #1 and #2 are certainly noble goals, although whatever we're doing isn't working very well. All we seem to be doing is creating smarter criminals. #3 is harder to justify. Not only should our government not be in the business of revenge, what good does it do either the victim or society as a whole?
     I read a very interesting paper on legal reparations today. If you get a chance, read it. It outlines reasons to move from a punitive criminal system to a reparative one. In the case of Townsend above, wouldn't it be more fair to have the driver subsidize him for the rest of his life? Certainly Townsend's earning potential is way down. The least the driver could do is send a portion of his paycheck each month to the victim to compensate for his loss of income....forever. Create an alimony of sorts to compensate him for losing his life. If it's appropriate for married people who have "become accustomed" to a lifestyle, shouldn't it be appropriate to a crippled victim? Since Townsend can't drive, maybe the driver should volunteer to chauffeur him around on the weekends (although, I'd personally be a little hesitant to drive with him). If you could enforce this type of penalty regularly, don't you think this would be a greater deterrent to drinking and driving than just losing your license? Appropriate, too. I remember hearing in some Social Studies class way back in the day (with no references to back myself up) that in some times of ancient history, when one man murdered another, instead of being locked up or executed, he was forced to work the fields of the murdered man's widow. Not only was he making some reparations, he was demonstrating good will and remorse. And even though nothing he can do will ever bring the murdered man back, he'll be able to reenter society at some point a lot easier than someone sitting for 15 years in jail. Besides, who can afford to house and feed and guard prisoners for years on end?
     You may remember a week or two ago that I mentioned that someone had knocked my mailbox down, along with those of at least 3 of my neighbors. While I was working at setting a new post the other day, one of my neighbors came over to talk to me. His own mailbox leaned at close to a 45° angle from a previous attack. "Don't you wish we could just kill them? That would teach them a lesson," he said, half in jest. Half. I sympathized with his desire for revenge. Every hour that I worked to pry up old concrete stuck in wet clay led to darker thoughts for the perpetrators. But to be honest, what I really wanted to do, if I caught the vandals, was to force them to not only pay for a new mailbox, but to install it themselves, maybe planting a few flowers under the mailbox, and perhaps mowing my lawn a few times, just to remind them how much work maintaining a house is without having to repair teenage damage. I really wouldn't physically hurt them (I think) and I wouldn't want to see them in jail. What good would that do? Of course the police are worthless. They tried to dissuade me from even filing a report.
     That's the real problem, I think. We ignore so many transgressions around us that some real percentage of the time, crimes go unpunished. How can we expect criminals to stop committing crimes if we aren't serious about reacting to them? I mean, Las Vegas makes billions of dollars by only paying out a tiny percentage of the time. If criminals have better odds on the streets of America, it will never cease. Maybe if we stopped simply filling jail cells and forced criminals (although I agree that violent criminals need to be sequestered from the rest of society) to make real restitution, we could afford to investigate small crimes. Make drunk drivers reimburse their victims for damages, not one time, but for as long as there are damages. Make doctors who commit malpractice correct whatever error they made and restore the patient's quality of life to what it was, instead of getting multi-million dollar settlements. Make shoplifters pay the cost, not only of the items stolen, but of the insurance, the alarm systems, the video cameras. Let's stop trying to punish people for the sake of revenge. It's not working for any of us. Let's try to make things right, instead.

9 comments:

Mike said...

It's an interesting suggestion. You just have to be careful not to cross the "cruel and unusual punishment" line. You would have to set strick standards for each crime. Like today there are statues for punishments. Crime X is punishable by a minimum $100 fine and probation to a maxium 2 years in prison. Suppose you say someone must drive their victim around for the rest of their life as you say in your example. That would obviously punish a 25 yr old much harder than an 85 yr old, since the 25 yr old is obviously going to live longer. Someone who hit a 30 yr old is going to be punished harder than someone who hits a 65 yr old. And what if the perpetrator gave up their driver's license to avoid the penalty? Just an example of the many issues that would have to be worked out. Perhaps punishments of revenge are better left to the civil courts rather than the criminal courts. But again, interesting concept.

Sylvana said...

Right On, Scott!! I always try to make the punishment fit the crime with my son. It is the only thing that really makes sense.

But who would make sure these jerks that knocked the side mirror off my car would wash and wax it several Saturdays in a row?

Scott said...

Mike, I think that's missing the point. It's not about the punishment. It's about the reparations. Revenge shouldn't be a factor. If you're 25 and the person you cripple is 25, which is more fair to the innocent victim? A chauffeur or the driver spending 2 years in jail? If you make a mistake, you should own up to it. If you accidentally back into a car, should you not pay the repair costs because it was an accident? Because you're young and need the money? If you get a girl pregnant and she decides to have the baby, should you not be liable for child care just because you're young or you didn't mean to? That's a lifelong committment you can make for a mistake when you're young. Why does it only apply to babies and divorces?

Mike said...

But that's what we have the civil courts for. Unfortunately it's not practical to force someone to chauffer someone around for the rest of their lives. You're infringing on that person's freedom forever by basically throwing them into slavery. If they committed a crime, punish them for it through strict spelled out punishments. Reparations have to go through civil courts because each case is different. While it would be nice to have service based reparations, it's much easier to enforce cash transactions.

sideshow bob said...

Scott, I think you may be misunderestimating (to borrow a term) the man who injured the other man. I don't think it's likely that he'll ever forget that he crippled another human being. At least I would hope he wouldn't. Maybe they could do like on Seinfeld and make the guy be the other guy's butler?

By focusing on reform rather than punishment, I think we would be doing justice for society as a whole, although much of our current economic recovery is prison job-based...I suppose reforming criminals would be bad for the economy. Oh well.

Alisa said...

I can see the dilemma the courts must have had with this case. Each state legislates it's own 3rd party liability laws in regard to alcohol consumption and alcohol sales. Being that Delta crosses most states, what a conundrum!

I think that judges should have discretion in the matter of deciding an appropos sentence that is out of the box of serving time in a penal facility. (Your mail box example is perfect for that!)

In the specific case that you cited in your original posting, I would feel a just punishment would be continuous financial support for the medical and transportation bills that have been incurred.

Phyllis S said...

I'm reminded of the case several years ago where a young man killed another another young man while driving intoxicated. As part of his probation, he was to send the family a check once a week in the amount of $1.00 (I think, could have been 10) as a way of reminding himself what he had taken away. I remember hearing at one point that he'd been ruled back into court because he had stopped paying because it was just too hard to do it every week. Sorta the point.

Mike said...

That's funny, SS Bob. I thought about that Seinfeld episode too.

Scott said...

Phyllis, that's a great example. But how much did $1 a week do to compensate the family for their loss? How do you compensate someone for a death? Nobody wants to see another person waste their life in prison for a mistake, but nobody wants to see them get off Scot free when the victims are still suffering.