Jewish World Review March 25, 2002 / 12 Nisan, 5762

Thomas Sowell

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Courtroom lies | When the sentence for Andrea Yates' killing her five children was announced, most of the media reported it as a life sentence and some noted that she would be eligible for parole in 40 years. In reality, Andrea Yates can be freed at any time by any present or future Texas governor for any reason, including wanting to court the feminist vote by commuting her sentence or issuing a pardon.

The point here is not that Andrea Yates received too light a sentence. Perhaps she should not have been convicted in the first place, as columnist Charles Krauthammer -- a former psychiatrist, but by no means a hired gun -- has argued. The point is that the sentences handed out in courtrooms are not the sentences actually served.

What is the point of lying to the public about sentences? Apparently some believe, brushing democracy aside, that the benighted masses need only be mollified with words, while the anointed control what actually happens.

Time off for good behavior is one of the ways of reducing the sentences handed out in courtrooms. But does the fact that someone behaves himself behind bars indicate that he will behave himself after being released back into society? If he behaves well behind bars, why not let him stay behind bars until he serves out his sentence?

Parole is even more of a shot in the dark. How can anyone imagine himself capable of predicting what another human being will do, in circumstances wholly different from those in which he currently lives while imprisoned? Anyone so self-infatuated as to believe himself possessed of such clairvoyance about strangers is the last person to be trusted with the power to risk the public's safety on such guesses.

Probation is another exercise in deception and self-deception. To speak of a probation officer with scores of probationers as "supervising" them is to take wishful thinking to new highs. So-called "supervised" furloughs from prison are another dangerous gamble behind the public's back.

Victims of probationers and prisoners on furlough include those who have paid with their lives for the optimism of "experts." But those who turned them loose do not even pay the price of being personally identified as having made these disastrous decisions -- and so can keep on making more disastrous decisions with the same unruffled confidence as ever.

Considering what detailed statistics are kept in sports - you can find out how many times Ty Cobb hit into double plays 80 years ago -- it is truly ironic how few records are kept on those who make decisions that can cost other people their lives. Perhaps that is because the payoff matters in sports, while in much social policy what matters is that people with power keep it -- and conceal any information that would threaten their theories.

If we ever think as seriously about the criminal justice system as we do about sports, many of the words and practices of today will disappear. Think about the notion that convicted criminals' sentences should vary according to whether they do or do not "show remorse." Should sentences vary according to acting ability? Or according to whether judges are self-infatuated enough to imagine that they can read minds and hearts?

In a crowded court system, with career criminals out walking the streets awaiting trial, why are cases allowed to drag on while time is taken up with claims about some convicted murderer's supposedly unhappy childhood? There is no childhood happiness meter for any of us and seldom are records sufficiently detailed or reliable for anyone to have any confidence in assessing how happy or unhappy some stranger was, decades ago.

Why is time taken up in court by having widows or other family members testify about their feelings of pain and loss because their loved one was killed? Don't we already know that? Isn't that one of the reasons for laws against murder in the first place?

This is not even counting the time wasted by frivolous lawsuits in civil cases where, at minor or even zero personal cost, someone can impose huge costs on other people and even larger costs on the legal system as a whole, not to mention the loss of public confidence in the law. We have a long way to go before we think as much, or as rationally, about our legal system as we do about sports.

JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author of several books, including his latest, The Einstein Syndrome: Bright Children Who Talk Late.


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© 2002, Creators Syndicate