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Rough justice on you and me

Posted: December 4, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Updated: December 4, 2013 2:00 a.m.
 

From the Nov. 25 SCV Signal:

“A 27-year-old Palmdale man has been sentenced to six consecutive life terms plus 182 years in prison for his role in a string of armed robberies of electronics stores in the Santa Clarita and San Fernando valleys, a D.A. spokeswoman said Monday.”

Six consecutive life sentences. Given that there’s free health care in prison, this guy might actually make it to 80, resulting in a net sentence of 480 years.

I’m not sure how or why the “consecutive” thing works, other than as some sort of rough justice fist-pump, “Oh yeah!”

The case goes back to a couple of guys from the A.V. who thought it a good idea to grab a gun and hit up a variety of electronic stores, rounding up employees and customers into stock rooms while they went about their robbing.

This makes for kidnapping, which makes for life sentences, and now the lead guy is in prison for 480 years and his accomplice is in the pokey for 20.

I’m not saying the sentence is too harsh or too soft. I had a gun aimed at my head once and I can assure you we need to make sure that things like that don’t happen with any regularity.

Criminals need to be put away, with correction and hopefully rehabilitation, if possible. Our first priority is to protect the public from proven criminals.

Yet not often recognized, we’ve also got to protect ourselves from the collateral economic damage such criminals cause within the system we’ve created to deal with them.

That’s why this verdict is more about us and less about these cellphone robbers. While their first crime was a few thousand in phones, their more costly crime — the justice we just underwrote — is that they have made us to pay for up to 480 years of incarceration for Perp No. 1, with 20 years additional for Perp No. 2.

Let’s do the math for which we just self-sentenced ourselves: A stay in the California prison system is good for $35,000 per year. Let’s go $35,000 x 480 years.

That’s $16,800,000.00 bucks. Maybe free prison health care and radical genetic breakthroughs don’t come through, and Perp No. 1 only makes it 50 years. That revised tab is relatively cheap, at only $1,750,000.00.

Toss in another $700,000.00 for Perp No. 2’s 20 years.

There you have it: justice served, and you and I are served a tab for something between $2,450,000.00 and $17,500,000.00.

This exorbitant price makes it seems like you and I are the dopes making the very bad life decisions.

It’s worth noting that these numbers likely exceed the sum your entire block of neighbors will collectively pay in

California income tax during all the working days of our lives. All for two misguided jacking AT&Ts for cellphones.

More efficient societies, like the Romans of old, would simply shove these guys into the lion’s den. Hard-core rough-justice Americans would say, “Use a gun, get a swift execution.”

The appeal of such is that the tab for justice drops from millions to simply cleaning up the lion’s cage.

Swift justice has economic appeal. On the other hand, we’re discovering that America convicts thousands incorrectly each year, and nowadays we’re freeing folks who’ve unjustly been incarcerated for decades.

Swift justice loses its luster if you’re the guy getting the unjust swiftness.

Still, doesn’t there need to be a balance? Nations fall when the cost of maintaining their dogma or ethos or mythos exceeds their actual ability to cover the tab to underwrite the system.

With the U.S. already incarcerating at rates far exceeding even repressive China and Russia, well, you might conclude we’ve bought into extravagantly inefficient systems we no longer can afford.

Our justice system has put us in an economic fix — and this 480-year sentence thing is a jarring, local reflection of the conflict between what we’ve become versus what we can actually afford.

Plainly, what we’re doing isn’t working and we must invent something better. Norway has cost-effective incarceration where prisoners work on islands building houses and learning carpentry. Denmark houses its mentally ill in therapeutic homes, not prisons.

Most advanced countries recognize that convicts over 55 generally don’t commit violent crime and adjust sentencing appropriately to keep a lid on cost and misery.

American justice has become a high-cost, high-stakes contest about retribution, not rehabilitation or economic public protection. We’ve got to get back to practical, productive, affordable justice before even more of what you and I work so hard to pay in taxes goes down the drain on more life sentences costing billions more of our very hard-earned money.

Personally, I’d rather see my taxes go to colleges and parks and public works, or maybe just a tax cut. Wouldn’t you?

Gary Horton is a Santa Clarita resident. “Full Speed to Port!” appears Wednesdays in The Signal.

 

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