Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Berman's at It Again

This time by passing on another provocative topic, prosecutors who encourage juries to enhance sentences in order to "send a message" about the impact of the crime. The practice is apparently getting some appellate review despite being part and parcel of closing arguments since Abe Lincoln was riding the circuit in IL. If nothing else, this urging of extra punishment puts the lie to the assertion that the purpose of a prison sentence is seen as anything but “sending a message," as we've noted here frequently.

Since I've expressed qualified support for “therapeutic shaming” if it can be reasonably imposed (GIANT “if”), I'm clearly not opposed to “sending a message.” We prove daily that most of what we do is about norm enforcement and not actually impacting crime or using resources wisely. But this “message” is only sending half the reality, it seems to me. Wouldn’t, shouldn't, the full message also include “we are willing to spend $XXX a year for X years, and more once the offender hits a certain age” for this sentence?

Sentences are budget decisions as well as communal judgments, something judges, prosecutors, juries, and policymakers who’ll be out of office when the bills come due like to pretend they don’t understand or not pretend they don’t care. Some survey research now understands the “half empty” nature of this rhetorical setup, asking people not just their support for policies but also their “willingness to pay.” People’s attitudes and actions usually are different when they see their own tax dollars involved.

We’ve gotten where we are because most jurisdictions have conspicuously but usually surreptitiously avoided attaching dollars to their actions, saying, as all those who don’t actually have to pay the bills always say, “cost is no object, or shouldn’t be, how dare you put a price . . . .” Unfortunately, cost is not an object only in fairy tale worlds, and it affects everything else we might be able to do in criminal justice, like actual prevention of crime and victims, negatively.

States that do impact analyses have had the necessary debates, sometimes deciding to pay the costs, sometimes not, but being upfront and honest and not screwing the tab onto future generations or uninvolved taxpayers who might just have voted differently once the consequences are clear. How would it hurt to be forthright, to say that, for this offense, we are willing to shortchange future juvenile justice, law enforcement, prosecution, courts and sentencing themselves, not to mention the efforts at economic development, education at all levels including voc ed, and health care that build strong communities that don’t foster or condone crime? There are times when that message, that balancing of community priorities is appropriate, and there will always be times when it should be considered. But because this “half a message” at final argument is part of the "win above all" game, it’s clearly just the tailors conning the King on how beautiful His invisible garments are.

Yes, I know I'm getting cranky here. My actual conservatism is coming out, I suppose, moaning out the typical criticism of this generation and culture—do what feels good now, charge the costs on a credit card (preferably to be paid once I’m dead), blame someone else for the predictable and predicted problems when they hit if I haven’t croaked yet. I chuckle at times when “conservatives” call me liberal when they’re among the most profligate people in human history, especially with someone else's money. I just feel that basic decency requires that juries be informed of the full consequences of what they're doing.

Maybe that’s a message that needs to be sent with each verdict, too.

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