Prison isn't always the answer

Prison isn’t always the answer

Edit: someone has made me realize that I have missed an element that bears consideration, so I have added a few bits to reflect this…

All criminal actions must be bad¹, but not all bad actions may be criminal.

A driver in the Gold Coast hit and severely injured a teenage cyclist as a result of a decision to move into the parking lane in order to try to get around two other cars already waiting for the teen to cross at a crosswalk.

She made up a story about faulty brakes, but when that didn’t work, she pleaded guilty, received 12 months in prison, and upon appeal, served 6 days.

At almost exactly the same time in Chicago, a man who was driving over the legal alcohol limit struck, and this time killed a cyclist. As we so often hear, he was a good man, no priors, nor a single traffic offense. Still, when you add alcohol with “I never saw him. He just came out of nowhere and hit my van”, you get a tragedy that never should have happened.

The driver was by all accounts a shell of a man after the event, and the judge decided that his time in prison time should be more like 100 days than 14 years.

100 days in prison for killing someone while driving drunk certainly doesn’t sound like justice. 6 days in prison for making an astoundingly bad decision that resulted in nearly killing a teenage girl while using a crosswalk while sober sounds even worse. I absolutely believe that stronger punishments need to be attached to actions that cause harm, but I don’t believe that a longer jail term is necessarily the answer here.

To be sure, there are situations where prison is absolutely justifiable. When lives are lost or ruined by increasingly careless actions, when people have a history of using a vehicle to threaten or bully others or use their vehicle as a weapon, when there is a blatant disregard for the value of other people’s lives in the decisions that people make, then prison is worth considering, and could very well be the appropriate response.

That too often there doesn’t usually seem to be anything in between a lengthy custodial sentence being handed out (rare as that is), and issuing a ticket or two for a traffic offense, is bizarre. That nobody in a formal position of responsibility for our communities well-being seems to be concerned with the larger issue of how we allow such easy and unfettered access to something that causes so much damage, seems bizarre.

That the accused parties here did something very illegal which had the worst of all possible consequences is without question. That this needs suitable consequences is without question.

As for jail time, this man and this woman, are not, I would assume, at risk of armed robbery, or sexual assault, or shooting or stabbing someone, or any of the usual things that people need to be cut off from society and locked away for, but they have shown that they cannot be trusted to use a vehicle in a responsible manner.

Where they are a risk to the public, like so many others, is behind the wheel of a car, so the gravity of the situation needs to (at least) be reflected in the permanent loss of that ability. The right to drive is not greater than the right to live, but that is all too often how it appears in the eyes of the law.²

The right to drive is, lest anyone forget, actually not in fact a right at all. It is a privilege. Not driving has never killed anyone, but last I checked, driving has killed millions, and injured countless others.

Millions dead. 1.25 million in 2013 alone. Millions dead is something we usually only associate with tragedies like war and famine, but it happens every year and at the hands of people who are much of the time engaging in something that is a luxury. Not a right. Like life. Or health. Or happiness. All things that, strangely enough, are so often compromised by our obsession with travelling any and all distances by personal automobile…

As a society we need to have a serious rethink about the way we have allowed the automobile to shape and rule our lives. In the meantime, and as part of that process, we need to re-prioritize the position of driving to be less than that of actually living. We don’t need to put more people in prison, but we don’t need to be putting more people in the ground just so someone can avoid the ignominy of taking public transport, cycling, or walking.

We need real, meaningful, but relevant consequences for those whose actions on our roads kill people. Removing their ability to do so seems only too logical. Permanently if you kill someone, short-term to long-term if you don’t quite manage to do that, with the requirement to re-train and re-sit a drivers test before having another crack at it. Possibly on a re-occurring time-frame, with the added bonus to society of job creation and more money going into the system for road safety, etc, as a result.

Imagine, a deterrent that poses the threat of a permanent loss of your license, which if enacted removes the risk of further harm, and doesn’t compromise the quality of life of the offender (if the crime warrants that). That’s a win for everyone.

Again, and to be sure, sometimes imprisonment will be the appropriate answer. Sometimes people choose a car as their weapon of choice for their thuggery, and those people are criminals that should be punished more severely, but I would suggest that in most, or at least many cases, this wouldn’t be necessary.

Something that I had missed entirely in the first instance of writing this is considering the application of justice on behalf of the grieving families of those lost to such terrible crimes, and, to a lesser extent specifically, but no less important in the broader sense, the message that needs to be sent to the general public about such things.

I don’t have much to offer in regards to sending a message. I think that’s a tricky one. Essentially, you are making someone responsible for not only their crime, but also, in a way, for crimes yet to happen. I do think that messages need to be sent, but I might suggest that reforming policy to increase the severity of the repercussions of such crimes and making that widely known would be the place to start, rather than making an example of someone specifically just to send a message.

And as for justice for those who’s lives have been stolen from them, and for their family and friends? Again, that’s exceptionally tricky, and I might send you over here for another view on the matter. What comes to my mind is, if we employ some kind of “eye for an eye” approach to justice and we are outraged at the devastation that one family has been put through, what kind of justice is it to respond to that by putting another family, who are no more responsible for the situation than the victims, through the same devastation (well, not the same, no-one is arguing for the death penalty…)?

Prison has it’s place, but it’s only one option within a whole spectrum of methods that we can use to respond to the ways we think about our roads, how we use them, and how we maintain order on them. What is clear is that we aren’t dong enough, and need to make driving the privilege it used to be. Abusing that privilege should be criminal, though not necessarily resulting in a prison term. What seems an even bigger crime, however, is that we’re all so terribly afraid to do so.


¹ I’m quite aware that there is an argument to be made that some things deemed by certain authorities to be illegal should in fact not be, but that’s another debate for another blog…
² An older article mentions a permanent disqualification for the Gold Coast driver, which hopefully still stands.


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