The Mass Unincarceration Problem
Aug. 5, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — Granted, it lacks the sexiness of prisoners thrown into the hole, or raped by virgin screws, or life plus cancer for a dime bag of weed. But to an ordinary person, who goes to work every day, provides for a family, tries to make ends meet, there is no easy resolution when they meet the legal system.
In the New York Times, Shaila Dewan writes about how “light” punishments impact the lives of otherwise law-abiding people:
Donyelle Hall and her husband, Roland Jr., gave a party for friends and family at their apartment. Mrs. Hall, a nurse’s aide for the severely disabled, had recently taken a college course in medical terminology to improve her earning potential. Mr. Hall worked as a kitchen manager. The two had married the year before.
Mrs. Hall had gifts ready for each guest — pajamas for her mother, new boots for her two grown sons. Well before midnight, the party wound down, and Mrs. Hall, who had been drinking wine, got in the car with her husband to drive two guests home. She was 40 at the time, had zero points for bad driving on her license, and had never been in trouble with the law. That was about to change.
Boom. Stopped, drunk driving, and a sentence of probation. The system worked, right? Tell that to Donyelle Hall and her family.
But over the next 18 months, Mrs. Hall would find herself in trouble again and again, though she committed no new crimes. She spent countless hours attending court and lost thousands of dollars in fees, legal costs and wages, as well as two jobs. The judge handling her case imposed conditions far harsher than the norm, then repeatedly called Mrs. Hall into court for violations like failing to ask permission before moving to a different unit in her apartment complex.
Ultimately Mrs. Hall spent more than a month in jail because she could not afford another $2,500 to bail herself out.
Got a job? Kids like to eat? So sorry, but you shouldn’t have driven drunk. Well, no, you aren’t some terrible person who gets blind drunk and goes on the road to kill people, but then drunk isn’t what it used to be. Did I mention Donyelle Hall is black?
This in no way is an excuse for drunk driving, but the fact remains that it was once based upon the observable degree of recklessness, until an advocacy group, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, took up arms to fundamentally alter its nature.
First, it was demonized beyond all comprehension. A couple of drinks was no longer poor judgment, but facial proof of murderous intent. And the measure of drunkenness came from a magical black box, which shows Blood Alcohol Content of a certain number, that keeps creeping down as society embraces the underlying notion that we shouldn’t accept any degree of risk if we can find a way to criminalize it.
Who knows whether their BAC is above the magic level? Not Mrs. Hall, who certainly didn’t decide to embark on a life of crime at age 40 with her holiday presents all nicely wrapped.
Years ago, a person found to be intoxicated was ushered off the road by helpful police, who wanted to make sure no driver would be harmed while not destroying an otherwise law-abiding person’s life. Little of this scenario remains intact. The cops aren’t quite so helpful. The concern for the welfare of the person who inadvertently drank a bit too much has given way to fears of mass murder on the roads.
Someone must pay. No mistake, no poor choice, no lack of alternatives by a person who has somehow managed to harm no one in the past 40 years counts. It’s a crime! Burn the witch!
The fact remains that most people who drive after having a drink too many manage to make it home uneventfully. They neither get nabbed by the cops, nor do anyone any harm. They go to sleep that night and awake the next morning to feed the kids, walk the dog and perform well at work. That’s because they are not evil people, and do not malevolently engage in conduct that would cause anyone else pain.
But stercus accidit. And you end up with a life in ruin of an otherwise lovely person, even though they weren’t (at least, initially) treated harshly by the system for being a first time offender. The point is that there is no such thing as “light punishment,” and every involvement in the legal system carries burdens and hidden landmines that are just waiting to take a mother from her children.
It’s understandable that we, as a society, are concerned with the welfare of people on the road, and everywhere else for that matter. It’s understandable that we don’t want people to take risks with other people’s lives by driving drunk. But what is not so easily understandable is that we take an ordinary, law-abiding person who made a relatively trivial mistake and destroy their life, under the guise that the punishment is light and, hence, nothing worth worrying about.
Worry for the people on the road. Worry for Mrs. Hall too. Even the unincarcerated suffer horribly in the grip of a system designed to punish rather than help.
Main image via Flickr/Scott Davidson