What’s Excessive Punishment? Answering Off the Cuff

On March 11 I gave unplanned testimony at a House hearing in Jefferson City. I’m afraid I sounded a little confused — I hadn’t even read the bill — but I’m still glad that I did speak. I was there because it was a lobby day for the Empower Missouri Criminal Justice Task Force and the Don’t Shoot Coalition that formed after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson. I wanted to follow up on a discussion with one representative about sponsoring a bill to reduce the prison population; speak to senators who serve on the Gubernatorial Appointments Committee about Parole Board appointments; and apologize to the Speaker’s office about not getting a task done. I didn’t do any of those things.

I got there early and did get to two meetings, but a big part of the delegation arrived late, and the briefing was long. Then I had to walk three blocks to put money in the meter where my car was parked. I had lunch and talked with the chair of Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE) about mandatory minimums. By then it was noon and a hearing was beginning that I’d agreed to attend, because the representative I wanted to see serves on that committee, and because two of the bills offer municipal court reforms, a result of discoveries about how the Ferguson court has operated. That’s where my story begins, with me sitting in the hearing.

A representative has a bill to make it a class B felony to give alcohol to a teenager when that gift results in the teen’s death or that teen causing a death — most probably in a traffic or boat accident. The representative brought a witness, a mom whose son had been the passenger killed when a 16-year-old drunk driver crashed the car. His mother’s boyfriend and a 22-year-old friend had both given the driver cases of beer plus hard liquor. All they can be charged with is a misdemeanor. The proposed class B felony would raise to penalty to 7 to 15 years in prison. The legislator said he wanted to send a message to adults who give liquor to teens.

The mother’s testimony was wrenching. Her son’s death was a terrible loss. I knew no one else was going to speak against a 15-year prison sentence for giving alcohol to a teenager, so I stood up.

As I say, I was okay, not very organized, but simple in my plea that we don’t create more long sentences to send a message people won’t hear. Then one of the representatives quoted Romans at me. “Sister,” he said, “I know you are compassionate, but don’t you agree with Romans that the purpose of government is to create a good society and to punish those who do wrong?”

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I should have just said that I agree we should hold people accountable and that includes punishment, but that I thought the punishment in the bill was too severe. Alas, that notion that the purpose of government was punishment took me by surprise and so we had a small exchange on exegesis. I can’t quote much of the Bible but I did go back to Romans 16 this morning. I don’t read either the King James version or the New International Version as saying punishment is a purpose of government but rather a responsibility that goes with governing. See, I’m still trying to sort out a testimony that makes me look a little more coherent.

That’s my point, really, in this commentary. We need to speak when the moment calls for it, even if we are not prepared, even when we may end up looking inept or, worse, foolish. In my stumbling lack of clarity, I’m afraid I looked a little foolish and easy for the committee to dismiss.

So back to the question: What is the appropriate punishment for an adult who gives drugs or liquor to teens? I’d say a year in jail might be enough. A year in jail is tough punishment. Read Orange Is the New Black if you think a year is nothing. Should the punishment increase if the teen dies or causes a death? I’d say no. We shouldn’t punish people more for unforeseen results. But I’d recommend prosecutors going after everyone who gives liquor and drugs to teens.

It is difficult to put limits on punishment, especially in the face of trauma and deep sorrow. But that too is part of the job of government.


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