The news can be such a pit of despair.
Last night I heard the headline on TV, something to the effect of «Convicted rapist kills Florida woman… should he have been walking the streets a free man?» and I prepared myself for what I expected to be a typical reactionary media story. As many times as we hear reports from the liberal media with their own slant (agreed that the media has a slant… tongue in cheek that it is exclusively liberal) bemoaning the rights of prisoners or victims or whatever, the media, and especially TV news has a greater God to worship, and that is sensationalism: If arguing for tougher sentencing goes against their grain but the story will shock and scare, their liberal leaning will go out the window. Of course, I’m sure they justify it to themselves that they are tearing down «the establishment» but whatever. They can have their illusions.
I was prepared to hear a story about how this man had done his crime and then was set free and how our criminal justice system failed to protect society, and I was prepared to find the other side to it; and often in the stories that make it to TV, you can see the other side of the story very well.
I was not prepared for the barenaked travesty of justice that I heard. I am frankly frightened by the implications of what has gone on.
Lawrence Singleton was arrested yesterday for the murder of a Florida prostitute named Roxanne Hayes. He strangled her and stabbed her repeatedly until she was dead. Her naked corpse was in plain sight of the officers who came to Singleton’s door to investigate the reports from the neighbors. Singleton was covered in blood and told the officers that he had cut himself cooking.
This is a particularly gruesome story, but it didn’t start yesterday. In 1978 Lawrence Singleton picked up a 15 year old hitchiker, attacked her, raped her, severed both her arms with an axe, and left her for dead. She survived and identified Singleton as her attacker, and he served eight years of a fourteen year sentence in the California State prison system and was paroled with time off for good behavior. The TV and radio people made a big fuss over the fact that he had served only eight out of the fourteen years to which he was sentenced.
If he had served every minute to which he was sentenced, he would still have been a free man yesterday. Eight out of fourteen sounds to me to be the grim reality of our overcrowded prisons. To be sentenced to fourteen and only fourteen years in prison for one of the most brutal crimes to come across my newspaper, there’s the real travesty of justice.
Lawrence Singleton tried to kill, but failed. Why is this less of a crime than if he had succeeded? If Mary Vincent had bled to death before her nearly lifeless body was discovered, would Singleton have been a free man yesterday? I hope not. I suppose that it is possible that he would receive such a light sentence for a brutal crime, but I have very serious doubts.
This is the primary question: what is the purpose of prison? This is a question that we need to ask ourselves and it is a question that we need to stare hard in the face. If you listen to talk radio, you hear that prison exists to punish crimes or to rehabilitate criminals.
Prisons are a social expedient. The implications are rather frightening if you look from this perspective, but bear this out. Our government has wisely built in many safeguards to limit the scope of its power in our lives. This is because (as I have been taught since first grade… perhaps earlier) we make certain aspirations to be a free society where personal individual liberty is more important than governmental authority. Now living in the real world as an adult I take many exceptions to that ideal, but I will let it stand if only to illustrate a single exception. Prisons are the place where the government takes away our liberty because we have exercised our own will in disregard for the government’s idea of what we should be doing. I agree that this is a fundamental hypocracy, but I also agree with Thomas Paine: «Society in every state is a blessing, but government, even in its best state, is but a neccesary evil.» I could go on further about how evil government is, and how evil prisons are; suffice it to say that I recognize them for their purpose, and that is to take away the liberty of certain people.
Paine had one word before «evil.» That word, as you see, is «neccesary.»It is neccesary to protect the society, and that can be done only with the tools of governmental authority. When we extend those tools to paternalistic punishment, then I believe that government has overstepped its bounds. Who gives the government authority to judge and punish? Neither is it realistic to expect government to have the wisdom and ability to reshape a person’s life and make them into a productive member of society. As much as we would like to, we simply don’t have that kind of influence over people’s minds and souls. Our government is not, nor are our prisons, a punishing parent or a role model for children.
Prisons are walls that protect us from the dangerous people. We put people in prison because they constitute a threat to society. If a person has killed, it means they are more likely to do it again than a person who has no record of criminal behavior. By that logic, we put these people away where they cannot hurt the rest of us. This is the primary purpose of prison. Punishment or rehabilitation may be well and good, but neither help society in the vitally important way that insulating us from the killers and the thieves does.
I laugh when I hear complaints that prisons are luxurious places where criminals can go for vacation. All the cable TV in the world would not make San Quentin a nice place. I have to admit that given the choice between spending a year in San Quentin or a year in Newark, I’d take San Quentin. Certainly safer. All that aside, I sleep better at night knowing that the people that kill are watching cable TV on the other side of a concrete wall with armed guards making sure than none of them get out. I am not afraid that prison may be too nice, I am afraid that prison may be too easy to get out of.
Imagine that you are a judge and a case comes before you where a man has raped and permanently mutilated a fifteen year old girl. The evidence is overwhelming and the jury votes guilty. How much mescaline do you have to be on to figure this guy can do a quick fourteen year stretch and then go walk among us again? We’re talking about the sort of sicko that needs to be kept apart from society for the rest of his natural life.
Lawrence Singleton is obviously a sick man. He attempted suicide a couple of weeks ago, and was rescued by a neighbor. Something was eating at his soul so badly that he saw no solution but to end his own life. Whatever that was won out over whatever sanity may have been grappling with and he killed brutally. The only difference is that this time he was successful in ending his victim’s life. I hope he stays locked up this time, and not because I bear him any ill will, but because I want to know that he is not going to get someone I know. I want to feel safe.
Nobody wins. Lawrence Singleton’s victims don’t, that’s for certain. Society in general is more frightened when things like this happen, and for good reason. The criminal justice system from the courts to the prisons to the parole boards all end up looking bad. Singleton himself isn’t getting the isolation he needs. Think about it. If you were a dangerous psychopath who couldn’t control your actions, you might not like being locked up away from your freedom, but you’d probably hate the memory of what you’d done and the temptation to do it again. It’s a lose-lose situation.
If Lawrence Singleton got out of jail in eight years, what other kinds of dangerous people are walking the streets right now because we couldn’t keep them in prison. To quote a police Captain who will go unnamed, «You don’t think people go to jail for stealing cars, do you?» I know I won’t be sleeping well tonight.