It is not surprising that Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom is frustrated that his office could not win a conviction greater than a misdemeanor for a car accident case that had tragic results ("Deadly acts, lightly punished," Oct. 10). But in a nation that purports to prefer restrained government, yet leads the world in the rate of incarceration, and in a state that struggles to find money to fund its justice system and jails, it's a disservice to complain about legislative inaction without consideration of the costs and benefits.
In lieu of rational analysis, Backstrom leans on the emotion: the horrific experience of those who have lost family members due to another's poor driving. But while lawyers may casually quantify pain and healing as months sentenced to jail or dollars received in a lawsuit, the general public does not really think in such cold, hard terms.
Sure, some families of victims may feel anger at what they perceive is a light sentence. But if a 90-day sentence is changed by a law to a one-year sentence, who is to say that victims such as the ones pressing Backstrom would be satisfied? Why not two years? Then someone will later decide one or two years is hardly enough; how about five? Sentencing based on the raw emotions of victim pain is not a good basis for policy. Additionally, it lacks consideration of the impact on state expense.
An effective sentence should have a prevention purpose, or properly reflect societal punishment for willful acts. The problem with constantly raising sentences is that the costs go up out of proportion to the preventative or punitive benefits. Fiscally prudent legislators resist the sentencing arms race (at risk of being labeled "soft on crime") and ask if a proposed new sentence will reduce incidents of the conduct commensurate with the added costs.
Equating careless driving with driving drunk is poorly considered. Criminalizing drunken driving, and its attendant publicity, certainly has influenced many in society to drive sober, call a cab or use a designated driver. While I am not aware of any research studies having been conducted, the raising of repeat drunken driving (third occasion) to a felony would appear to have some wakeup-call value to those at risk who need to go into treatment.
But would we prevent poor driving by criminalizing it more substantially if a death results? How many of us have veered into lanes at the wrong time, gotten distracted by something in the car, taken a turn too fast, not seen a car stopping in front, and so on? Sure, we're infuriated when others who do so put us at risk, but to raise the stakes in sorting through which bad driving behavior is willful and which is just stupid or accidental is not what we want to spend our criminal-justice dollars on. It is not in the long run going to help the emotional recovery of victim families, or improve driving generally.
As for punishment, why is jail time alone considered a better measure than the impact of having committed the crime? It is well-documented that many military veterans, who were legally allowed to kill and often experienced compelling self-defense reasons to do so, still might suffer for years after because of such acts. Do we really think that defendants who have killed someone because of driving poorly do not feel the weight of their act as a far more significant and lasting punishment than sitting inside a jail cell for however many days?
One alternative to criminalizing -- that keeps lawyers busy but reduces state costs -- is to argue about car accidents based on negligence only in the same venue as other negligent acts: the civil courts. But the same false quantifier of justice and healing is present here as well: Why is $100,000 a just result for a lost life, but not $60,000? Or $150,000?
A further problem with both criminal and civil courts is that they are designed to deepen the anger and frustration of victims. Defense lawyers, civil and criminal, typically advise their clients against admitting any fault or even saying anything about the incident at all, which often precludes expressing sorrow if that can be construed as an admission of responsibility. Victims thus become further angered by what appears to them a lack of accountability or remorse by defendants.
Lawyers on both sides are trained to prioritize winning, not helping defendants or victims feel better beyond the implication that it feels better to win than to lose. But it's really lawyers like Backstrom who feel better by winning far more than do victims or defendants when there is underlying tragedy.
The ideal model, and also a great cost-saver for Minnesota, would be to encourage restorative-justice solutions in which the defendant and victim are able to fully communicate the circumstances of the tragedy, the impact on each, the remorse of the defendant and what it will take to heal. Examples of this model in large-scale settings are well-known as Truth and Reconciliation Commissions.
If victims are truly driving Backstrom's legislative lobbying, he should consider how their needs would really best be met.
Michael Friedman is executive director of the Legal Rights Center in Minneapolis.