A Prison on a Hill
Every time I hear a judge talk about sending people to prison as a means of promoting public respect for the law, I want to stop the proceedings and holler: "Really? Just how does sending yet another soul to prison promote respect for anything, Judge?"
But I don't. I stand silently beside the defendant and listen as months and years of their life are whittled away in the name of justice. Rather than getting used to the public spectacle of sentencing, I get more militant: Prison is not a house of correction. Prison is a shrine to human failure.
So I stood the other day next to a woman as a federal judge told her she needed a year in prison. The woman's adult children sat in the spectator gallery, quietly sobbing as it became apparent that their mother, who had pleaded guilty in a mortgage fraud case, would become a resident of one of the nation's penal colonies. The sentence, the judge intoned in the dry metronome of disembodied justice, would promote respect for the law.
I can't think of a big-time banker who went to prison for selling bogus mortgages to investors. Banks and bankers are, we're told, too big to fail.
We love to boast about being a City on a Hill, but critics note that we're a culture in love with locking people up. We have 5 percent of the world's population, but 25 percent of the world's prisoners. Given our love of mass incarceration, perhaps we ought to refer to ourselves as the Prison on a Hill.
I've long been of the opinion that judges ought to be required to spend some time in prison before dishing out the sentences they impose. So should lawmakers. It's easy to chest-thump about justice, getting tough on crime, and the need to promote respect for law from a privileged perch. Ought not these officials taste the product they are selling before sending folks off to despair?
Or consider the sentence meted out for a man who accidentally killed a store clerk during a robbery. A jury found the man not guilty of murder, crediting his testimony that he had mistakenly fired the weapon he used as he committed an armed robbery.
But the jury convicted him of felony murder -- killing someone in the course of another crime -- and armed robbery in the first degree. The sentence? Fifty-five years. The judge told the defendant that if the crime had been murder, entailing, as it does, the intentional taking of a life, the sentence would have been greater. (The maximum for murder is 60 years.)
This sort of sentencing does not promote public respect for the law. It is an institutional form of savagery. No one is the sum of his worst moments. Horrible things happen. Matching horror for horror merely compounds suffering.
Dickens got it right. The law is an ass, and nowhere, at least last week, was the law as asinine as it was in Virginia. The state's medical examiner, a physician with wit sharpened no doubt by drinking embalming fluid, opined that James Brady's death was a homicide.
Brady, you will recall, was press secretary to President Ronald Reagan in 1981. John Hinckley Jr. shot them, insanely seeking to impress Jodi Foster by means of violence, hoping, I suppose, that an assassination would yield an assignation.
Medical examiners play an important role in our society. They render opinions on the cause and manner of untimely and suspicious deaths, routinely offering explanations of the tragic and awful in the mundane terms of causation. Thus, in a shooting death, a medical examiner might say the cause of death was a gunshot wound to the chest, the manner of death being homicide.
But who in their right mind would classify Brady's recent death as caused by the gunshot he suffered in 1981? What about the intervening 33 years?
Lawyers speak in terms of proximate, or near, cause. A proximate cause is something that is a substantial factor in causing a result. The law recognizes that some causes are so remote in time that they cannot carry legal consequences. Thus, in many jurisdictions, you can't be charged with murder even if you shoot someone and the person dies a year and one day after the shooting.
Life, we recognize in every jurisdiction but Virginia, is complex. Plenty of tributaries carry us along on life's way: There are many intervening, even superceding, causes.
Brady no doubt suffered a lifetime as a result of his injuries suffered in 1981. But when he died 33 years later, it strains credulity to think he expired as a direct and proximate result of the gunshot.
Somehow, the exaggerated nonsense of the Virginia medical examiner seems of a piece with the prattling of judges sending people to prison to promote respect for the law. We send the mentally ill to prison because we cannot, or will not, provide decent treatment for them and they become misfits. Imprisoning the ill does not promote respect for the law.
We send drug addicts to prison when they self-medicate to avoid the harsher realities of a society in which the middle class is evaporating. That does not promote respect for the law.
We send ordinary people to prison for ordinary failings, while letting corporations avoid criminal consequences by paying fines because they are too big to fail. That does not promote respect for the law.
Sure, I'm bitter. Courthouses are destructive places. We pretend justice is done there, but only a fool really believes that, and only judges pretend to do so.
I was stunned when I learned that Robin Williams killed himself this week. The man was almost pure genius. A world without him is a poorer, drabber place. I worry that, without his biting wit, the gavel-wielding class of Solons trying to teach us respect will take themselves too seriously, that we'll have more nitwit medical examiners like the fool in Virginia.
Jesus wept when he saw too clearly the folly that defines us. Robin Williams hanged himself. What a world.