Christopher tm Herdt (cherdt) wrote,
Christopher tm Herdt

Fairness in Punishment, from Murder to Traffic Violations

One of the arguments--although, thankfully, not the main argument--made in Children Given One Strike (video - 10:26 to 11:10) is that a juvenile sentenced to life without parole actually spends more years in jail than an adult sentenced to life without parole. E.g. a 15-year-old sentenced to life without parole who dies at 75 would have spent 60 years in prison, whereas a 25-year-old sentenced to life without parole who dies at 75 would have spent 50 years in prison. The juvenile actually experiences a more severe punishment than the adult!

That may be true, but I think the judgment leveled at the sentencing ignores 2 things:
  1. The purpose of life without parole. I'm no criminal justice scholar, but I imagine the idea behind life without parole is to keep a person from ever interacting with the public again. The person is assumed to be a perpetual menace. Rehabilitation clearly plays no part in a life without parole sentence. Therefore, the duration of the punishment is not a factor, or not as important a factor as keeping the public safe.
  2. This is clearly not taken into account in other cases involving adults. Otherwise, life expectancies, including medical conditions and family histories, would need to be evaluated when computing a sentence. If a 60-year-old murderer will only live 15 years in prison, does that mean the maximum sentence for any murder should be 15 years?

I am reminded of how ridiculous cumulative sentencing can be on the face of it: Dick Loeb and Nathaniel Leopold each received life plus 99 years for kidnapping and murdering a child, as if their rotting corpses would remain behind bars for nearly a century to really teach them a lesson. Bernie Madoff received 150 years, substantially longer than any person outside of the Old Testament has ever lived (not that I think he deserved less).

That idea of fairness, though--an idea that can only be a human construction, since it does not appear to exist on an empirical level in my eyes, notions of payback or karma aside--is an interesting one. Is it fair that one person should serve 20 years and another 60 for the same crime? This led me to start thinking about fairness in terms of monetary fines, e.g. for traffic violations.

A person in a 2009 BMW 535i sedan gets pulled over for rolling through a stop sign. They get a ticket for $120. As an additional punishment not levied by the state, the cost of their automobile insurance also goes up. For the driver of a $50,000 car, this is a trivial inconvenience. It is something to complain about over lunch.

If a person in a rusty 1993 Oldsmobile 88 gets pulled over for rolling through a stop sign, they get a ticket for $120, and their insurance goes up. For the driver of a $500 car, this may be a major blow. That could be the straw that breaks the camel's back. That could be grocery money. That could mean going without necessary medication, or the heat getting shut off.

Obviously, the answer is: don't roll through a stop sign. If you are poor, that is. It wouldn't be the first time there was a double-standard between the rich and poor.

When it comes to monetary fines, equal dollar amounts means less to the wealthy. If we wish to be fair, such fines should be graduated in a manner similar to income taxes, based somehow on assets and income. Of course, that would be very difficult and costly to calculate and enforce. Is there another way to level the ground?

What I would really like to do is suspend a driver's license for such poor driving habits. Roll through a stop? 30-day license suspension. Of course, this too may have some built-in unfairness: rural dwellers experience greater inconvenience than urban dwellers. Some people may not have another family member who can give them rides into work, potentially leading to lost income for the driver and lost productivity for society as a whole. Commercial drivers, in particular, would be unable to work. Your pizza delivery boy, though you may tip him well, is not known for his 6-figure income.

I do feel like it would provide a greater incentive for the wealthy to pay closer attention to their driving habits, though. After all, it would be considerably more embarrassing for the driver of the BMW 535i to bum rides from friends than the driver of the Olds 88.

Maybe I'm just saying that because the drivers who seems most likely to run me over are in Lexuses, Bimmers, Jags, etc. Maybe I'm just saying that because I live in the one of the nation's 10 most dangerous cities for pedestrians. Whatever--I'd love to see some of those jerks take the city's underfunded buses.
Tags: automobiles, birmingham, cars, fair is fair, juvenile sentencing, license suspensions, life without parole, life's not fair, no such thing as fair, pedestrians, poverty, traffic violations, wealth

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