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Wide White: Imprisonment is not the answer

According to the Star Tribune, efforts are underway to stiffen penalties for drivers whose carelessness kills someone. This includes falling asleep at the wheel, turning around to hand a sandwich to a kid in the backseat, or any other form of distracted driving while not under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

These efforts are being led by accident victims’ families as well as Dakota County District Attorney James Backstrom and State Representative Pat Garofalo. The Star Tribune spent a lot of time profiling each victim, obtaining impact statements from the victims’ families, and giving public officials the opportunity to talk about their support for yet another proposed law.

What the story failed to provide was an opposing viewpoint. It left the reader feeling as though our laws must be changed because it’s the only option to ensure justice is served.

But the truth is the law can only do so much to prevent tragedy, and this is not a case where changing the law, especially with new prison sentences, will help. I’m not suggesting that we should never stiffen penalties and perhaps responsibility for a fatal crash should result in a gross misdemeanor rather than a simple misdemeanor. But even a gross misdemeanor would result in up to a year in jail. What will that year in jail actually accomplish?

Over 3% of Americans are either in prison, jail, on probation or on parole. This is the highest rate of incarceration in the world. While the federal government’s failed drug war is largely to blame for this, our thirst for incarcerating people goes further than drugs, extending to petty crimes such as theft or disorderly conduct. From Wikipedia’s entry on incarceration in the United States:

Violent crime was not responsible for the quadrupling of the incarcerated population in the United States from 1980 to 2003. Violent crime rates had been relatively constant or declining over those decades. The prison population was increased primarily by public policy changes causing more prison sentences and lengthening time served, e.g. through mandatory minimum sentencing,”three strikes” laws, and reductions in the availability of parole or early release. These policies were championed as protecting the public from serious and violent offenders, but instead yielded high rates of confinement for nonviolent offenders. Nearly three quarters of new admissions to state prison were convicted of nonviolent crimes. Only 49 percent of sentenced state inmates were held for violent offenses.

This outrageous rate of imprisonment must be reversed. While ending (or at least scaling back on) the war on drugs is a start, we have to go further. We’ve collectively adopted a mindset that incriminates the justice system for criminal behavior. While crime prevention is certainly a role of the justice system, we can’t expect the justice system to prevent all crimes from occurring.

We certainly can’t expect prison sentences to solve everything. A mother who lost her son to an accident with an inattentive drive expressed her exasperation to the Star Tribune, saying,”There’s no accountability. It’s like a slap in the face.” The problem with this statement is it suggests that prison is the equivalent of accountability.

Tragedy will occur no matter how stringent our justice system is. However, when tragedy occurs, vindication and revenge towards the person who caused the tragedy is not the answer. I realize I’m writing this as someone who hasn’t had a loved one taken from me in these circumstances, but in fairness, I’m not sure someone who’s been personally affected by this sort of tragedy will have a very fair perspective.

When considering imprisonment as a punishment for a crime, we have to ask ourselves three questions. First, will imprisonment teach this person a lesson that they could not otherwise learn outside of prison? Second, do the crimes committed by this person warrant separating them from the rest of society for a period of time? Third, is imprisonment necessary to keep this person from causing anymore problems for society than they already have? I’m not convinced that negligence warrants a prison sentence under these guidelines.

I’m all for keeping criminals off the streets and for ensuring that justice is served for those who break the law. But justice can be served without locking a mom, husband, daughter, or brother away for their tragic negligence. There should be a consequence for negligent driving that turns deadly, whether it’s revoking a driver’s license or victim compensation or something else. But prison is not the answer.


This post was written by Joey White and originally published on Wide White. Follow Joey on Twitter: @OneJoey

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