Make ’em pay!

Draconian sentencing? It’s the American way

Mark Drolette is a former Sacramentan who occasionally contributes to SN&R from his Costa Rican retreat.

Quick quiz: Which headline is more appalling? “Bush Commutes Libby’s Prison Sentence” (The Washington Post, July 3, 2007) or “Weed Eater thief gets 28 years to life” (The Sacramento Bee, February 5, 2008).

That’s right: Why should the Weed Eater guy have any chance of parole?

That Les Misérables-worthy sentence was handed down in nearby Auburn. Maybe 42-year-old Reginald Whitfield deserves decades in prison for a garden equipment heist. Never underestimate the danger of a country overrun by terrorist-concealing weeds. Judge Mark S. Curry explains using the meat axe to mete out Whitfield’s sentence: “He’s been in and out of prison like it’s a revolving door.”

Whitfield’s previous convictions were for armed robberies in 1991 and 1993. Per the Bee’s Art Campos: “In the first, he wrapped a shirt around his hand to simulate having a weapon and demanded $5 from his victim. In the second, he was caught taking food from a market and fought with security officers as he tried to escape.” These heinous crimes are much worse than, say, abetting the outing of a covert CIA agent.

Come on! Whitfield’s punishment is hideously disproportionate to the crime. But peruse these reader postings to online versions of Campos’ piece:

“Maybe we should look at a spay and neuter day for repeat criminals, no sense in letting them breeding and screwing up more lives.”

“What we need is a remote island far off the coast (so they can’t swim back) so we can ship these criminals there and save tax dollars. Another solution might be to chop off his hands so he can’t rob or steal any more, as is done in Islamic countries.”

Makes you proud to be an American, doesn’t it?

What compels so many of our fellow citizens to demand retribution so extreme? Isn’t this, like, kinda mean?

Bob Altemeyer, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Manitoba, has researched authoritarianism for decades and posits in his new book, The Authoritarians, that “the greatest threat to American democracy today arises from a militant authoritarianism.” That occurs, Altemeyer writes, when “followers submit too much to the leaders, trust them too much, and give them too much leeway to do whatever they want—which often is something undemocratic, tyrannical and brutal.”

Altemeyer further asserts that these followers “find it easier to bully, harass, punish, maim, torture, ‘eliminate,’ ‘liquidate,’ and ‘exterminate’ their victims than most people do”; are “extra-punitive against law-breakers”; and “admit it feels personally good, it makes them glad, to be able to punish a perpetrator.”

Having a nation full o’ bullies bodes ill for restoring sanity to our penal system anytime soon. Our incarceration rate leads the world—one of every 100 Americans is in jail.

Is there any hope? Well, unless under interrogation by Homeland Security, don’t hold your breath. Millions of American meanies cheer Draconian punishment for nickel-and-dime crimes, yet utter nary a peep when a perp like Lewis Libby scoots free. What’s truly criminal, however, is how such types can’t see that whenever the country they purportedly love so much senselessly locks away a soul, it loses another slice of its own.