Monday, February 6, 2012

Editorial: Hang 'em high

One of the inherent weaknesses of conservatism is the inability to stop doing something when it doesn't work. The conservative's response instead is to do more of it.
   So it is with the unnamed editor and today's editorial, stumping for Rep Eddie Farnsworth's HB2373, which would increase minimum sentencing for certain repeat felons and maximum sentences for others in cases first- and second-degree murder.

Tell me how this improves anything.
   The editor agrees with Rep Farnsworth that judges, juries and parole boards cannot be trusted to fulfill their responsibilities to evaluate the character and actions of individuals in assigning and enforcing sentences. He prefers that we legislate sentences instead, removing the human element and therefore, he thinks, the possibility that scary criminals get out of prison to scare again. On some people he wants to throw away the key.
   What he's also apparently willing to throw away is our justice system, or more precisely the parts of it that focus on anything other than penalties. In the editor's world, all we'd need are cops to develop evidence, laws that describe the penalties, and prison guards to warehouse the transgressors.
    I certainly understand the reflex to punish those who break society's rules. It'd be nice if punishment worked. But it doesn't, particularly for the sort of person the editor imagines as "the worst of the worst." True sociopaths are mentally ill, and incarceration with other bad actors only exacerbates that illness, increasing the risk to society. Less enlightened societies simply kill them (or sometimes elevate them to dictator status). If we hope to reduce the risk of violence by people with mental challenges like this, we really need to focus a lot more on treatment.
   What the editor's conservative blinders won't admit is that non-sociopaths will be swept up in this hang-'em-high net, and mandatory sentencing takes a bad act and turns it into a career, again increasing the risk and cost to society.
   Violent crime has been decreasing steadily for decades, and will continue to do so, not because of incarceration but in spite of it, due to inevitable demographic changes. Aren't we better off trusting our judicial professionals and our juries to do their jobs? I expect the editor would certainly feel that way if he found himself in the dock.