Our society is troubled by the presence of dangerous persons and reacts by increasing penalties and imprisonment. This is seen as the solution that will reduce those incidents.
Intermixed with this are persons who are not so dangerous but who make mistakes. A classic example would be a tired driver travelling to work in the morning who passes through a red light and kills a child pedestrian. A very tragic circumstance but one that anyone could encounter without being a dangerous criminal. It relies on our police, prosecutors, judges, and ourselves, to consider those circumstances.
Ironically, if the struck pedestrian was a robber running from police, with a bag of stolen money in his hand, the reaction might be different. It would be the same act committed by the same tired driver but he might even be applauded by some for stopping a criminal act.
Twisting the scenario one more time, if the driver was impaired by alcohol the reaction might be different again. An impaired driver killing the child would be highly unacceptable. But what if this was a first drinking offense by a young man who became drunk with no initial intent to drive until the alcohol affected his judgment? Certainly it would be an unacceptable act, but where would it fit within the scale of the other scenarios? Might the reaction be different if it was an alcoholic who had committed other offenses? Since it is known that alcoholism is an addictive sickness are we prepared to treat that alcoholic as a patient who needs treatment or are we interested in punishing him no different that the robber with the bag of money?
The reality is that bad consequences and the character of the person who creates them affect our reactions to them. The worse the consequences the more likely that the penalties will be higher. The worse opinion we have of a person’s character the more we are likely to seek vengeance rather than understanding.
While, in many instances, stiffer penalties and jail time may be a deterrent at other times they can lead to something quite different. A driver who makes a mistake and receives a stiff penalty and possible jail time is likely to be affected by this consequence for the rest of their life. Once that penalty is completed its consequences are not. A stiff monetary penalty that cannot be afforded may lead to the loss of a house, a car or other essentials that might have kept that person in a stable environment, seek help, and allow that person to move on. Without that house, car, etc. a domino effect may occur. A job might be lost. A marriage may fail. The person’s mental state may change. These consequences may seem of little importance if we do not understand when a possible deterrent can change to a possible enhancement for that penalized person’s next bad interaction with society.
At the same time, there in no freedom without responsibility. There comes a point when an individual is past the point of help and must have their freedom removed, sometimes permanently, for the sake of public safety. This must mean continued and costly monitoring because early intervention did not occur or was unsuccessful. Once we help create such monsters there are times when you can’t break the branch and stick it on another part of the tree.
Vengeance, like candy and alcohol, may be a quick, satisfying indulgence. But if our ultimate goal is our health and the overall well-being of our society we need to take it in moderation. And we need to understand its consequences. Penalizing a driver causes a disruption that may result in a downward spiral. A driver with a drinking problem may resort to more drinking. Perhaps a turn to more powerful drugs, or a turn to more dangerous crimes. The need to consider this is not because we are “bleeding heart liberals” or unfeeling for the loss of the victim. This need is because it affects our own pocket book, our own future safety and how effectively our society will function in the future. Because, unless we are willing to keep troubled persons away from society for their life-time, they will eventually return and not necessarily in a better state. The fallacy of believing that a quick return to prison will surely occur is that, in fact, a troubled person performing disruptive or criminal acts, does not get caught on a 100% basis. If our goal is vengeance without rehabilitation that driver may return to society with a fresh, sharper and more mean-spirited axe to grind. Impaired drivers will continue driving impaired but they will become more educated on how not to get caught. Speeders will continue speeding. Distracted drivers will continue driving distracted. Many of these acts will go on for a substantial time and over many incidents before those responsible are snared, and the process could repeat itself.
Furthermore, imprisonment does not mean that there is no cost to our society. It means that we pay for meals, housing, guarding and other costs that occur during imprisonment. Recent statistics from Correctional Service Canada (CSC) indicates that it costs taxpayers $116,000 per year to keep a prisoner in jail. In the fiscal year 2015-16 there was an average of 14,639 persons in Canadian jails which resulted in costs of about 1.7 billion dollars. So why not become tougher on crime? Why not increase the prison population to 30,000? That is OK, but now the costs rise to 3.5 billion dollars. The solution exported by many who blow this horn sounds great.
What occurs during imprisonment has consequences for what occurs after imprisonment. Involving the penalized driver in a reason to change may be a greater deterrent that the penalty itself.