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.