The dreaded blue lights and cop siren. Damn. We were under-aged and snookered, the car filled with a few six-packs and a dozen empties. Scott pulled over. The cop marched toward the car. Finding Scott . . . um . . . in his cups, he barked, “What’s wrong with you?” With that obnoxious flashlight, he looked the five of us over. Not a sober person in the bunch. He was livid and after castigating us demanded, “Which of you is the most sober?” Someone volunteered, but I’m damn sure it wasn’t me. After confiscating our beer and installing a new driver behind the wheel, he cautioned us to drive straight home and departed. No arrest, no charges, no court appearances, no loss of license. The fine? Eighteen Bud Lights.
Twenty-five years later, the five knuckleheads in that Chevy had become a criminal defense lawyer, a civil lawyer, an engineer, a Marine, a chemist, and a salesman. None of us, to my knowledge, have committed any felonies.
A teenager today pulled over on suspicion of driving while intoxicated is in for a world of hurt. He’s arrested, booked, jailed, arraigned, harassed and embarrassed. Even if the case is ultimately dismissed, the charges sully his criminal record; he pays court fines, court fees, probation fees, and attorneys fees. He’s on probation and required to a complete an alcohol rehabilitation course. It’s endless. And why? Because our puerile culture, entitled to an unattainable perfection, demands the sacrifice of lawbreakers to reaffirm the sanctity of our fool’s quest. Bereft of loftier ideals and lacking creativity, we are content to legislate and punish our way to Utopia.
But, we’ve also become unsettled as a community. We fear each other, and it’s this apprehension that feeds our vigilance. Fail to punish the intoxicated driver, goes the reasoning, and he will kill someone someday. Punishment averts possible disasters. Should the punishment fall short, its medicinal inadequacy isn’t raised, just the dose. What reasonable, or even unreasonable, punishment could not retard, more severe punishment can terminate.
And while escalating severity may frighten the most recalcitrant into compliance, it comes with an unbearable cost; today, unlike twenty or even ten years ago, almost everyone of my clients, regardless of the seriousness of the charges, is absolutely terrified of our system of justice; they expect not empathy or understanding, but acerbity, isolating imprisonment, and the Scarlet Letter of a permanent criminal record. Though some may be inclined to dismiss my clientele as hardly representative of society as a whole, the vast majority of my clients have never before found themselves within the crosshairs of our criminal justice system. They are regular folks, conditioned to paralyzing bouts of fear for straying off shrinking reservations.
Perhaps worse, we are no longer satisfied with simple severity. A man is no longer allowed to resume his life after paying his debt to society. We demand control. Today, more than ever, those who complete their sentences endure increasingly lengthy periods of probation – with an additional prison sentences in the offing for probation violations. Supervision may include answering to a probation officer, abstaining from alcohol, unannounced visits, g.p.s. ankle bracelets, alcohol monitoring devices, and any other number of inane, invasive, and spirit crushing conditions. Probation, in short, has become a prison without the walls.
- Secretary Betsy DeVos: Slowly Remaking Title IX Investigations - August 2, 2018
- The Shooting of Kathryn Steinle - January 2, 2018
- Massachusetts House Passes Major Criminal Justice Bill - December 7, 2017