Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Crime and punishment

A couple blocks away from my house there was a terrible car crash two days ago.  I would say 'accident' instead of 'crash' but that would be terribly inaccurate; the driver was a 19 year old who was drunk and driving at immense speed when the crash occurred.  He hit a pole so hard his car was ripped into several large pieces and large chunks of the vehicle were scattered all over the area.  Despite that he walked away with only minor injuries; his passenger was not so lucky and was instantly killed.  He is facing a number of extremely serious charges and will likely spend a very large portion of the next decade of his life in prison; it might even be a lot longer than that.  Justice?  I don't know.

Obviously this is a tragedy and society's paramount goal needs to be preventing these sorts of disasters from occurring but I wonder if long prison sentences actually accomplish anything in this type of case.  We need to establish that there are terrible punishments for crimes but in many cases once the crime is committed there isn't much to be gained by actually going through with the punishment.  In a case like this it is likely that the perpetrator in question is wracked with remorse and he will almost certainly face great difficulty going forward. Everyone he knows will be well aware that he caused someone else to die because he made terrible and foolish decisions and moreover he will be aware of that failing all the time.  There is no escaping this sort of thing.

It is the sort of dilemma you often see in games.  It is important to establish to other players that you cannot be pushed around and that you will react in a punitive, irrational way to being attacked and yet it is rarely a good idea to do that when the situation arises.  Society needs to establish tremendous punishments as deterrents (though in many or most cases the deterrent is irrelevant to the decision to commit the crime) but following through has tremendous costs for society as a whole and for the individual in particular.  There are people who are terrible and unrepentant enough that they must be imprisoned for long periods or forever but they are a minority of those in prison I suspect.  In most cases it is better to try to keep people integrated into society rather lock them up and throw away the key.

We should be grateful for a system that allows judges leeway in this sort of case.  Sometimes it is clear that a defendant really did make a stupid decision with no ill intent and is unlikely to reoffend; in most cases a light sentence will be by far the greater good.  I would guess that this is the case here from the little we know from the news article but obviously that is hardly conclusive.  We also need judges to be able to step in and deliver punitive judgements when necessary as sometimes the accused is really quite beyond redemption.  I wonder what it would be like to make those sorts of decisions on a daily basis.  It would be really hard, I think.


  1. Drunk driving is one of the stupidest and most selfish things one can do. I hope he gets no leeway at all. It's theoretically possible this was the first time he'd ever driven drunk but I highly doubt it.

    I can see what you're saying. Now that he got a terrible result he probably won't do it again. Punishing him now may not change how he behaves in the future and it is really unlikely to change the way other people behave either.

    I don't care. I strongly feel that stupid actions should be punished. To be honest I don't even think the death should impact things at all. I'd start locking up anyone who drives drunk. I know that it's going to take something drastic to stop people who think it's ok to drive drunk and I'd want to see it start off harshly and not just hit people who happen to get 'unlucky'.

    Maybe some day cars will shut down and prevent drunk people from driving them at all...

  2. The problem here is just how our system works. We punish people when they get caught and one of the ways to get caught drunk driving is to get in a terrible accident. We punish people based on the severity of outcomes and so people don't get harsh punishments until they create a severe outcome.

    But when it comes to drunk driving, those who create severe outcomes are probably some of the least dangerous going forward. A drunk 19-year-old who kills his friend is very likely to live with regret for a long time and never drive drunk again. A drunk 19-year-old who doesn't get in an accident is the one we need to target with a severe punishment. People who get away with things tend to get worse over time and people who cause severe consequences to themselves and their friends when by their actions are the ones who tend to halt their behaviour (barring addiction, psychopathy, etc.).

    I heard he was charged with first degree murder, which I think is absurd, but I can't see how we (we=society, and with caveats that we don't know what happened) can do anything other that put him in prison for at least a couple of years.

  3. I tend to agree with Sthenno that spending huge sums to destroy this kid's life is much less useful than spending huge sums to convince people to never get in his situation in the first place. It is an ugly mess but I completely agree that society would get more out of brutally punishing drunk drivers who haven't crashed than drunk drivers who have.

    @Ziggyny Rather than cars shutting down when the driver is drunk I expect cars that drive themselves instead so the 'driver' can be as roaring drunk as they want without any consequence. The recent Google experiments with robot driven cars are working out very well and I see no reason why this wouldn't roll out to the public within 10 years or so.

    I do agree Ziggyny that drunk driving should be brutally punished when it is caught regardless of whether or not it resulted in a crash. I don't know that prison terms are going to be the most helpful result but removal of licence, probation, 3000 hours of community service, etc. hit pretty hard and send a message without spending so much money so destroy a person.