by Judge Dennis Challeen
Most of us remember if we got in trouble at school we didn’t want our parents to hear about it. We’ve all heard “I knew when I got home I was going to get double punishment.”
I lived six miles from high school and rode a school bus every day. When we caused any kind of ruckus, the old cantankerous driver would warn us, and if we continued he would slam on the brakes, tell us to get off the bus, and he wasn’t moving until we did so. We then had to walk home and when our folks saw us walking they knew why, and the double trouble began.
The old idiom getting “another kick at the cat” was not aimed at abusing the house cat, but meant getting another opportunity to straighten things out.
Our U. S. Constitution forbids double punishment for the same crime. But don’t count on our Constitution when dealing with parents and school bus drivers.
Double punishment can often be counterproductive. Sometimes life gives us a well deserved kicking, and additional punishment is “piling on” and unnecessary. We often see it in employee theft or embezzlement cases where the offender was fired, arrested and sent to court. These people will likely never get a job handling money or being in a position of trust again. Their future is grim. In court we always felt a criminal record and restitution of stolen funds without having a job to pay it was “kicking the cat” enough.
Learning how to punish with compassion is not as easy as it seems. It’s counterproductive to punish by taking away gainful honest employment, achievements and other accomplishments in offenders’ lives; rather we must focus on the problem. Also we must be careful of not causing collateral damage, meaning adding more grief to the lives of innocent persons who are unfortunately involved in an offender’s life (e.g., wives, children, siblings, parents).
Another problem is amateur punishers who get “first kick at the cat.” Professional judges must first have a law degree; they attend the National Judicial College; they are usually trained in sentencing, psychology of the criminal mind, what sentences work and how to heal rather than destroy; who will likely repeat, who won’t. The old thinking that lenient judges were bad judges is simply not true. The Norwegian justice system, the most successful in the world, proves constructive consequences work; destructive consequences fail. (Their recidivism rate is 16 percent; America’s is 76.6 percent.) Tough judges are more electable in the U.S., but they destroy lives and make us more unsafe.
Punishment works well on achievers and those who have something to lose, including respect within their community. But for chronic criminals, being hurt and demeaned is just more of the same in their everyday lives; hurt me — I’ll hurt you back. They endure punishment, respond with anger, and blame elsewhere without changing their losing ways; when imprisoned they learn how to be “smarter” criminals.
A prime example of an amateur destructive “judge” is the commissioner of the National Football League, Roger Goodell (a businessman with an economics degree who was paid $34 million in 2014). Whenever an NFL player gets in trouble on or off the field, Goodell steps in, plays judge, and immediately “kicks the cat.” He only thinks in destructive consequences and suspends the player’s salary before the courts have determined guilt or innocence. He says he must preserve the “NFL brand” which apparently means a bunch of athletically talented, grossly overpaid, adolescent brained men who run around in muscular adult bodies before cheering crowds.
A familiar example was Viking Adrian Peterson, who was charged with abusing his child in Texas. (Peterson’s salary was $14 million a year, or $875,000 per week of a 16-week playing season.) Peterson had a history of irresponsibility, fathering six, perhaps eight, children with different mothers. The commissioner immediately suspended his salary before his guilt was established.
Any constructive thinking professional judge would consider who is going to take responsibility for these children. It shouldn’t be the taxpayers. Peterson should have been allowed to play football, the only skill he has (other than fathering children, which doesn’t take much talent). A constructive consequence would require a large portion of his salary to be placed in trust for the support and education of his children; all to be worked out and probably plea bargained, after due process takes its course.
None of this happened. Peterson sat out the season earning nothing; his children and their mothers got nothing. The Texas court, true to Southern justice, got a second chance to “kick the cat” by fining him $4,000, court costs and 80 hours of community service. He wasn’t required to attend a parenting class to understand why we don’t “whup” children with switches anymore.
The commissioner continues to “kick the cat” by suspending salaries, hurting wives and families of the players, all in the foolish quest to protect the “brand name” of professional football.
Norwegian judges would shake their heads in disbelief at American justice.