Hard Time Doesn’t Always Mean the Same Thing

dice and judge's gavel

dice and judge's gavel
Don’t do the crime, if you can’t do the time.” It’s an old familiar phrase to fans of TV police dramas, and a stark warning to all would-be criminals to think twice before doing something bad. But people don’t always heed that warning. Nevertheless, when they get caught, there is a reasonable expectation that the punishment will fit their crime. Unfortunately, judges and juries don’t always adhere to that expectation.

Sometimes, sentences are too light. Take for instance the Triad man who several years ago decided to go bar hopping, get sloppy drunk, refuse a cab ride home, and then get behind the wheel of his car. Moments later he drove onto a sidewalk and struck a pedestrian, dragging his victim a hundred yards before realizing what he’d done. The man died and the driver got off with time served (about a year) plus community service. I’m sorry, but when you deliberately get drunk, deliberately drive a car, and kill someone, that’s no accident, it’s murder, and you should go to prison for life.

Then there was the 2013 case in Billings, Montana in which a male teacher raped his 17-year-old female student. The girl was so distraught that she committed suicide. The judge sentenced the teacher to 30 days in jail. In justifying his ruling, judge Todd Baugh said that the victim was, “older than her chronological age”, and was, “in control of the situation” when she was raped. As appalling as that verdict was, it is not unusual. There are 90,000 rapes reported each year in the United States, but according to the Rape Abuse & Incest National Network, only 3 out of every 100 rapists receive jail time.

But just as some judges are too lenient, others are too harsh. This is particularly true when it comes to handing down sentences for possession and cultivation of marijuana. A kid with no criminal record who gets caught with several ounces of pot can go to jail for several years, and if he happens to have 100 or more marijuana plants on his property, he can receive 40 years in prison. I’m not condoning the use of pot, but increasingly the country is moving toward legalization, and creating special drug courts to advocate for rehab, so handing down lengthy prison sentences for possession seems inappropriate.

Speaking of inappropriate sentencing, I am baffled by the verdicts in two recent, but unrelated cases. The first one involves a Massachusetts man who committed suicide. Conrad Roy, age 18, was extremely depressed and kept telling his girlfriend, 20-year-old Michelle Carter, that he intended to kill himself. For whatever the reason, Ms. Carter repeatedly texted Mr. Roy, encouraging him to go through with his suicidal plans. Eventually he did, and Carter was arrested and tried for manslaughter. Last month she was sentenced to two and a half years in prison. No matter whether the girlfriend was sick, evil, or just displayed bad judgement, the fact is that she did not kill Conrad Roy. In fact, she was miles away when he took his own life. Carter may belong in a mental hospital, but I can’t see how sending her to prison is justified. In any event, it was an unusual case and one wonders how it would have been adjudicated in another venue.

The other case that makes me scratch my head involves Jennifer Caswell, a 31-year-old teacher from Oklahoma. Ms. Caswell had consensual sex with her 15-year-old male student. The boy’s parents said that once the incident became public, their son was humiliated, so last week the judge sentenced Ms. Caswell to a minimum 10 years in prison, and ordered her to pay the boy $1 million dollars. No one condones what the teacher did, but she doesn’t deserve to be locked up for ten years, or have her wages garnished well into the next millennium. A more appropriate punishment would have been to give her a probationary sentence and ban her from taking any job in which she might come in contact with children.

The point is that we are in dire need of more concise laws which specify appropriate sentencing for all crimes, and which apply consistently to every locality in the nation. Until we get that, then going to court is a crap shoot. The question is, how much longer are we willing to accept the roll of the dice?

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