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What About Protecting Children?

Punishment that doesn't accomplish anything.

By Will Offensicht  |  August 15, 2011

Our recent article about Raquel Nelson, who was convicted of manslaughter after one of her children was killed as they crossed a street, revealed diversity of view.  We discussed the two major attitudes:

  1. Some parents are so stupid, so irresponsible, and put their children at so much risk of harm that government must intervene to protect the children.
  2. Government agencies are so venal, so corrupt, so incompetent, and so budget-mad that they harm far more children than they help; thus, they should keep the heck out of family life unless felonies are taking place.  Felonies can be handled by police and the criminal justice system in the customary way, social bureaucrats need not be involved.

Although the arguments for the first idea seem obvious, this article demonstrated that our government simply isn't capable of taking care of children.  It can't take care of adults either, as this sample of many articles about abuse in government-run care facilities shows:

The system, as Danny Hakim reported, operates with little oversight and tolerates shocking abuses. Employees who sexually attack, beat, berate or neglect patients can do so with little risk of punishment. Crimes are not reported, accusations are ignored by senior officials, repeat abusers are shuffled from home to home. A web of union rules shields problem employees.

There were 13,000 allegations of abuse in group homes in 2009 alone... [emphasis added]

Let's get back to Raquel Nelson.  Some of our readers felt that she should be locked up after being convicted of "failure to use a crosswalk, reckless conduct and second-degree vehicular homicide."  Ponder the implications of doing that.

What's the Purpose of Jail?

Her child can't be brought back no matter what we do.  The societal purpose in dealing with her must be focused on preserving the lives of her surviving children and of other children in her neighborhood.

We recently ran a series discussing the purpose of prisons.  The stated objective of every state's "Department of Corrections" is to identify people who're doing things society can't stand and persuade them not to do them any more.

Ms. Nelson has to re-live the accident each time she discusses her lost son with his siblings or her neighbors.  She'll remember each time she crosses any street.  Other mothers who hear her story and feel her pain may be inclined to be more careful.  Having her in the community as an example may save other children.

While she'd re-live the pain from time to time in jail, she'd be reminded of the incident more often if she stayed in familiar surroundings which brought back memory of her lost son.  In that sense, "punishment" would be more intense while living in her neighborhood than if she were behind bars.

Another purpose of prison is to protect society.  We lock up killers lest they kill again, burglars lest they steal again, and drunk-drivers lest they pancake other innocents.  It's hard to imagine that doing much good with Ms. Nelson - she either cares about her children or she doesn't, jail isn't going to change that, and there's no reason to suppose she's a threat to anyone else.

We Can't Afford It

All the sound and fury about the debt limit has demonstrated that our government can't afford to do all the things it's been doing.  We're going to have to cut a lot of spending which will be painful to those who've been receiving government money.  In the meantime, we ought to think about operating government more efficiently.

Think about the cost of Ms. Nelson's trial.  She's a relatively poor woman who had to be given a lawyer at taxpayer expense.  Public defenders don't get paid all that much, but it's another burden on the taxpayers.

The prosecutor has to be paid.  The judges, bailiffs, and the multitude of hangers-on around the legal system have to be paid.  The court building has to be maintained.  The "due process" required before she could be sent to jail would cost a lot.

Shouldn't prosecutors think about the best use of their limited resources?  What about the 13,000 cases of abuse which the New York Times found in group homes?  Those are people who set out to intentionally harm children, presumably far more horribly.  Why not go after them?

It costs at least $50-$100 per day to lock someone up in America, not including health care.  The jail time for the charges for which she was convicted add up to 36 months, but let's assume she's incarcerated for six months, the same as the drunk driver who killed her child.  Suppose she's sent to a relatively low-cost facility.  Her room and board alone will cost a minimum of $10,000 - but that's just scratching the surface.

Her two other kids have to be in state care while she's away.  Government-run parenting is expensive.  The New York Times wrote:

The annual cost of center-based child care for a 4-year-old is more than the annual in-state tuition at a public four-year college in 33 states and the District of Columbia.

It would be more expensive for the government to take care of her children during the day while she was in the slam than to send them to college.  Hiring someone in the foster-parent system to care for them at night and on weekends would cost even more.

What's worse, once she's convicted of a crime, her employment chances are close to nil.  No matter how she repents, no matter how she tries to make a new life, she won't be able to find work.  She'll be on public assistance the rest of her life.

The Beat Goes On

As it turned out, the judge sentenced her to three consecutive 12-month terms of community service.  In an unusual move, the judge also offered her a new trial, which she accepted because she didn't want a criminal conviction on her record.  The prosecutors weren't particularly distressed:

Cobb County Assistant Solictor AnnaMarie Baltz told the judge early in Tuesday’s sentencing hearing that prosecutors only recommended probation and community service.

“The state never thought this defendant deserved jail time,” Baltz said.

If the prosecutors didn't think the mother deserved jail time, why did they spend the money and court time to bring criminal charges?  Shouldn't they just have registered societal disapproval by giving her a misdemeanor ticket for jaywalking, which she unquestionably is guilty of but which would cause no permanent harm to her record?

The Bottom Line

If the mother cares about her child at all, jail isn't needed to make her feel sorry about what happened.  If she doesn't, on the other hand, jail won't have any beneficial effects.

Stupidity and carelessness are not criminal matters.  They may expose you to civil liability if you hurt someone else, and certain specific stupid and careless actions like drunk-driving have been defined as crimes in and of themselves, but jaywalking is not one of those.  The fact that a prosecutor had the power to criminally charge anyone in this case is disturbing.

You may not live in a police state, but no matter what, your freedoms are at risk any time any official decides to come after you if you step out of line the least little bit, particularly if you're unlucky and an unfortunate event can be linked to your poor decision-making.  No free people should have to live like that.