|Axel Foley, from The Beverly Hills Cop, the role that made Eddie Murphy famous.|
The New York Times recently published an alarming editorial exploring the overwhelming number of Americans who serve life sentences without parole for nonviolent crimes. Only 1 in 5 countries even have such a thing as a life sentence without parole, and in those countries it is usually reserved for first degree murder or other very serious violent crimes. In the United States we frequently sentence people to such prison terms for minor property or drug crimes, at overwhelming financial and social cost.
I felt a sense of cognitive dissonance while reading the article, because I realized that while I generally consider myself to be a critic of such an over-focus on imprisonment as the solution to crime, within the context of being a transportation reform advocate my role is, if anything, the opposite. Numerous publications I read daily report on the many instances in which American drivers get away with murder because of the cultural blind spot the U.S. has for auto violations' seriousness. It's a point I've made myself. The focus on jail time as a solution to auto crashes widespread.
Take this one, entitled "Jail Time for Hunting Down People on Bikes With a Car While Drunk: Zero".
"Good thing they were convicted, you might think" reads the article by Sarah Goodyear, but then underlines the meager punishment that conviction actually entails:
The second man charged with intentionally hunting down and striking a bicyclist in Brookfield on May 31, 2009 has been sentenced to zero jail time. The driver, 20-year-old Erik Fabian, pled guilty to aggravated battery with a deadly weapon and leaving the scene of an accident. He was sentenced to two years probation. Fabian’s buddy, Armando Reza, was sentenced last week to 10 days in jail for the same incident, a seemingly light sentence that has outraged a good many Chicago bicyclists.I don't necessarily fault the conclusions of this article. Especially in light of what we know about America's overwhelming use of life without parole for nonviolent offenders, and given the manifold cases in which people have been charged with homicide for lesser- and non-offenses, the author is entirely in the right to cry foul.
Our culture does not treat the offenses of motorists with any degree of seriousness. That's clear not just from real criminal cases, but also from the messages we send ourselves in movies. Cop series as diverse as The Beverly Hills Cop and Lethal Weapon draw on the now familiar trope of a police officer being sent to traffic duty as punishment, with the character usually fuming over his impotence in such an unimportant post. Yet car crashes kill more people than suicides and murders by guns combined (although this is changing), with the exhaust from cars killing an even greater number of people each year.
That said, are we as urbanists falling head-first into our culture's bias towards imprisonment as a solution to crime?
Another editorial I found on The Atlantic opined about the differences between the American justice system and those of Germany and the Netherlands. The Dutch, it says, only imprison 6% of criminal offenders. Quoting a Vera Institute report (full report here in pdf), the article also illustrates the difference between prison for Americans and their European counterparts:
[L]ife in prison aims to inculcate fundamental skills that offenders will need in the community. For example, prisoners are allowed individual expression and a fair amount of control over their daily lives, including the opportunity to wear their own clothes and prepare their own meals; and, in order to instill self worth, both work and education are required and remunerated. In addition, respect for prisoners’ privacy is practiced as a matter of human dignity. One American participant viewed this practice as a matter of common sense, commenting while visiting a German prison, “If you treat inmates like humans, they will act like humans.”I couldn't help but think, "Hey! Wait a second!" Aren't the Dutch those people who bike everywhere, the ones I'm always saying we should try to emulate? Surely they must prosecute bad drivers more seriously than here.
Well, yes, they do. Although not with prison (the offender was arrested, but not given a prison term, which I think is an important distinction):
This leaves me wondering if we're not a tad misplaced in our efforts to get vehicular manslaughter to be punished more severely. Perhaps the goal should be to remove drivers from their vehicles for a much longer time--for life, if necessary--and focus on re-socialization and recompense efforts like the Dutch. Then we can put the bulk of our money into infrastructural improvements that we know will make people behave better. And I wouldn't mind making it harder to get a drivers' license in the first place. We treat the possession of a drivers' license as an almost innate right, which is odd considering the ease with which we're drifting towards a police state in other regards.
I know for sure the next time some asshole speeds down Tobey Street on his (usually, but not always his) way to the highway, I will want to do far more to him than send him to prison. But maybe that emotional basis for resentment, while completely understandable, isn't the soundest place from which to make policy decisions.