Every now and then something occurs that stirs our passion so much that it takes on an identity by itself. This particular topic brings that passion forth within me with a vengeance and though I will do my best to remain objective and avoid appearing self-serving, it remains a difficult task. I would therefore ask for your patience and indulgence in that regard because of my own very personal and life-altering experience with a subject that is naturally controversial by its very existence in our world. Please also keep in mind that one of the goals with this blog is to give it a “personal touch”, so that its readers can make some sort of connection between the subject matter and their daily lives.
Recently, a 17 year old north San Diego County youth was sentenced to 480 days within the juvenile justice system for felony drunk driving. At 9:00 in the morning earlier this year, driving without a license and with a blood alcohol level over twice the legal limit, he struck an 18 month old child who was with his grandfather, leaving the child in a comatose state. As of today, the child is alive but appears to have suffered permanent brain damage. He was struck so hard in the accident that his skull was literally separated from his spine. This is the sort of tragedy that, in spite of our best efforts as human beings, we have a difficult time in deciding what is the “right” thing to do when it comes to consequences: Rehabilitation or Retribution?
Under present California law, a person under the age of 18 can be tried as an adult for certain crimes like murder or rape. However, in this case, felony drunk driving doesn’t fall into that category. Therefore, the 17 year old has been convicted and sentenced under the juvenile justice system. Under that system, he was sentenced to a maximum of 480 days in local custody as opposed to state prison, and was placed in an intensive program of rehabilitation. One paragraph of a recent article in the North County Times sums up where my focus will be with this blog chapter, and I quote, “Adult and juvenile court systems have different goals. The criminal justice system for adults can center on PUNISHMENT. In the juvenile justice system, the focus is on REHABILITATION.” The article goes on to state that “Unless a person goes to prison, there is a higher chance they will be rehabilitated in the juvenile system than if they were in the adult side.”
Those sentences I’ve highlighted in blue will serve to illustrate my points. Let me stress at this juncture, I am not writing to debate the merits of whether this 17 year old should be tried as an adult or even whether justice has been properly served with his sentence. It’s apparent that what he did in plowing into an 18 month old child with a vehicle, while driving without a license and legally drunk, is a major crime against humanity. That’s a matter for the courts to decide and society to determine on how they want the laws created to fit the punishment to the crime. MY focus is on the DIFFERENCES in the two systems, juvenile with its emphasis on rehabilitation and adult with the emphasis on punishment.
So, a question for you. Do you think it plausible that, merely because a person reaches the magical age of 18 and is therefore an “adult”, that they no longer become candidates for “rehabilitation?” Let’s assume for a moment this juvenile is NOT 17, but only recently turned 18. Should he be tried as an adult and not be afforded the opportunity at rehabilitation, thereby becoming “institutionalized?” For that matter, WHO is to say that ANYONE, regardless of age, shouldn’t be afforded the opportunity of rehabilitation FIRST rather than society imposing punishment in the form of state imprisonment as a “deterrent?” In other words, where should our priorities be? Seeking solutions to the person’s problems, which in the case of this chapter has to do with the use, or rather the abuse of alcohol, or do we seek negative consequences like prison?
The point is, we have our priorities backwards. We should be thinking and seeking humanitarian reasons to HELP one another rather than simply locking someone up and throwing away the key, as it were. Admittedly, the position I’m taking stems from my personal experience with the legal system. Maybe I’m even being too lenient in my views. But if a 17 year old is deemed worthy of “rehabilitation”, why SHOULDN’T someone of any other age? Granted, there are certainly cases where there is no other choice BUT to place some one behind bars. I’ve seen many people, of all ages, who for whatever reason, simply didn’t “get it.” They were either unwilling to seek help through rehabilitation or counseling, or they simply lost HOPE and fell victim to the system. Those people truly meet the definition of “institutionalized.” And it didn’t matter WHAT age they were, I saw men as young as the age of 19 who viewed jail as “home.” I also recall a man in his late 40’s in Liberal, Kansas who, by all appearances, seemed to be one of those who would be successful in turning his life around. He was intelligent, a good conversationalist, and had a successful career as an electrical journeyman. Sadly, he had also spent the better part of three calendar years behind bars for previous DUI convictions in Texas and had become so accustomed to the criminal life-style, it had become a way of life for him. One day he and I were having a discussion over the television and remote in the lounge room at the house arrest facility where we were staying. The remote had become a bone of contention, with everyone vying to have control over what programs to watch. I remember he grabbed it one day, looked over at me with a smile and said ever so calmly, “If I was back in jail, I hope I get my own private cell with a TV and remote. I’d be as happy as a bear with a jar of honey in hibernation.” I’ll never forget that moment. It was if he was subconsciously PLANNING on that life. I found out later after he got out he went right back to drinking. Heavily. Lost his job and shortly thereafter, he dropped out of sight. I never found out what happened to Steve. My guess is he got his wish. He may even be lying in that private cell at this very moment, snoozing away, remote in hand, happy as a bear in hibernation.
The bottom line is this. We, as a society, tend to shun those who have committed heinous crimes like the 17 year old north San Diego County young man who nearly killed an 18 month old child while driving drunk at 9 o’clock in the morning. We view that as a crime so severe that a long jail sentence is the FIRST thing we think of. Likewise, we have the same attitude towards a person of ANY age who commits a similar crime. However, because of the way the “system” is set up in California, this young man has a much better chance at rehabilitating himself than someone who is 47. The question remains, however, WHO is to say that he is any more worthy at rehabilitation than the other guy?
Both were born equal; innocent, dependent upon others, a beautiful creation of God with no past, no “record”, and no labels placed upon them by their fellow man. Somewhere along the way, something happens. One guy may turn out okay and the other may turn out to be a criminal, plowing head-on into an 18 month old child while drinking and driving. Shall we lock the other guy up and say, “He’s a menace to society?” Or do we have the awareness that maybe, just MAYBE, he’s worthy of our compassion as a fellow human being. Do we say, “Hey, it could have happened to anyone. Let’s HELP him.”
Rehabilitation or Retribution? A sociological and legal dilemma, one that’s controversial, driven with emotion, and a tough choice to make. As for me, the choice is easy. “There’s a little bit of good in the worst of us and a little bit of bad in the best of us. We are all children of God and we each have a right to be here.” Let’s HELP one another. Isn’t that what God intended for us to be?