Following up from The Assistant's wonderful post yesterday, I want to ask a question and invite the same kind of thoughtful response that my fellow blogger Grits for Breakfast gave in his comments.
Here's the comment that provoked the discussion was this:
"a criminal does not endanger society in the same way if he is isolated from it ... there is no surer way to take a habitual DWI offender off the road than to deprive them of their liberty."
Grits wrote an excellent response, which you can see here in full, but I think can be summarized by this:
"The practice of punishing DWI with no victim harshly (I'm guessing without any treatment while in jail) while the violent offender gets a lighter sentence seems like a perversion of priorities, with all respect."
Which got me thinking. I agree with so many of the positions taken by Grits, I really do, which may be surprising to some but not on this one. I hope others will chime in but my take on this specific issue is that sometimes people will simply refuse to admit they have a problem, refuse to submit to treatment, refuse to abide by the law.
I had a trial last year. DWI. It was the defendant's 5th or 6th conviction, I don't remember exactly. I do remember that he committed the offense while on parole for a 25 year sentence for DWI. He'd gotten out just a few months earlier and was at it again.
Thing is, he'd been on probation, he'd been given treatment, and he was still at it. More shocking to me was his attitude. He testified during trial, admitting that he'd been drinking, had taken vicodin, and was on his way to buy more beer to take back to his friends house (and then later drive home). He also admitted that for other people, mixing alcohol and prescription drugs was a bad idea and made them unsafe. Just not for him. He simply refused to see that he'd done anything wrong. And when he got the minimum, another 25 year sentence, he looked shocked.
So a couple of points, or questions:
1. What is the criminal justice system supposed to do with someone like that? Just slap his wrists and send back out on the road to keep drinking and driving until he kills someone, and then punish him? No thanks. As my trusty Assistant the new father points out, we have a duty to protect those around us. Is it a waste of his life that he goes to prison? Sure, absolutely. Is it anyone's fault but his own? No.
2. More of a point than a question, and I don't mean this to come across as patronizing so forgive me if it does: but I think many people who understand the theories of criminal justice and have absolutely the best intentions, bu who don't work in the system, don't get bitten by the reality sometimes. I have moved to the right since doing this job, a realignment I call it (my wife calls it treacherous, I think!). But take defendant above: what all the pro-treatment, repeat-the-probation folks don't get is that you can be an alcoholic and not be a danger to others, not break the law repeated times while risking others' lives. This guy wasn't being punished for drinking, or even being an alcoholic. He was being punished for driving his vehicle while drinking. An avoidable behavior that he has control over.
Ultimately, Grits is right that our resources are not always spent where they should be. And he's right that locking this dude up for 25 years is out of proportion to the crime itself, when that crime is looked at in isolation.
But the question remains: what do you do with someone like that?