Eight years is an insult

Eight years for a son's 16th birthday party where beer was served is way too severe a sentence. [February 20 cover story: "Eight years: for a 'minor' offense?"] (http://www.readthehook.com/93079/cover-story-eight-years-minor-offense).

It's unfair to multiply the normal sentence (a mere 90 days) on the grounds that a teenager, the late Brittany Bishop– who had dated the son and who'd died due to a drunk driver– "wasn't even cold in the ground" at the time of the birthday party.

The unfairness is grotesque when one considers that the parents required those who drank at the party to sleep over and that, among the 10 minors who tested positive for alcohol, the highest blood alcohol count was a mere .03.

Obviously the judge wanted to "send a message" that it's wrong to give alcohol to teens. But a draconian sentence is the wrong message. I'm persuaded the judge subscribes to the conventional wisdom that sentences should be set not just according to what offenders deserve (i.e., to what alone fits the crime) but also according to what might "scare straight" other actual or potential offenders.

Several problems with that conventional wisdom: 1) It's hard enough to fit the punishment to the crime. Speculation about deterrent effects is at best a distraction. 2) The best deterrence is a system that's truly just. Over punishment is a tyranny (if not a crime) perpetrated upon a perp. Such tyranny undermines moral authority in general, fomenting adolescent and post-adolescent "rebellion." 3) Just as a crime has rippling repercussions, so does an act of tyranny: Incarceration, in particular, is a cause of divorce. The parent-defendants in this case, George and Lisa Robinson, have already separated.

Jesus said: "Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them, for that is the law and the prophets." If we want justice done to ourselves, we must apply the Golden Rule to criminal sentencing. To determine what punishment is deserved, we must try to put ourselves in the shoes of the offender.

Which leads me to points four and five: To over-punish offenders in order to "scare straight" others violates the basic human dignity of both offenders and those to be intimidated. It treats them all as mere manipulable means to an end–- indeed, as moral morons, conscience-less calculators of risks and rewards. And that attitude undermines the basic self-esteem we all need in order to be law abiding. It undermines community cohesion as well, for people (including crime victims!) often don't want to inform the police or bear witness in court, when "doing the right thing" is doing the draconian thing–- and then, ironically, the guilty often get away unpunished.

Mark B. Peterson