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Apples and Oranges

By loaf in Op-Ed
Fri Jul 27, 2001 at 09:08:34 AM EST
Tags: Politics (all tags)

How should we quantify crime and punishment?

Just how can we compare speeding with murder with libel with fraud with contempt of court?

Last week the novelist Jeffrey Archer, a peer of the realm (at least for now), was found guilty of perjury in a libel action he brought against a newspaper in the late 1980s. Here is a perennial liar who was finally caught out, the fact that he had also been a senior politician, successful novelist and all round media figure just added spice to the mix. He was sentenced to four years in jail, the first few months being served in a Category A institution. He will not enjoy this time, a famous face will be just the thing for the hardened cons inside to feast on.

But on that same day a driver was found guilty of knocking down and killing a small girl when driving and using his mobile phone. He was fined £250 ($400) with some penalty points on his licence.

Personally, the latter case was woefully under-penalised, but it throws up another issue. Just how should we compare the two? Aren't they just apples and oranges - different aspects of the criminal system so comparing punishments cannot be realistically done?

Some commentators have defended the four year sentence for Archer as being necessary to protect the sanctity of the legal system. The idea being, they say, that if people are willing to lie in court, then the whole system will end in chaos and then where would we be?

But should the life of a small child (and the importance of a mobile phone conversation) be so much less than the probity of the legal system? I murder or manslaughter less important than the ability to dispence justice?


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Apples and Oranges | 22 comments (19 topical, 3 editorial, 0 hidden)
Driving (3.81 / 11) (#3)
by pallex on Thu Jul 26, 2001 at 07:33:39 AM EST

seems to invoke pitifully lax punishments. If you are drunk and kill someone its treated as an accident. I believe this should be changed, and treated as premeditated, as any reasonable person could have expected such an incident to occur.

Crashes are not accidents (3.40 / 5) (#10)
by KWillets on Thu Jul 26, 2001 at 05:42:24 PM EST

Agreed, in fact I would remove the drunkenness requirement. To get in a car without the awareness that you might kill someone is absurd. The idea that motorists cannot foresee the results of their actions is a convenient legal fiction, no more.

[ Parent ]
Crashes are not accidents (3.40 / 5) (#15)
by slothman on Fri Jul 27, 2001 at 01:27:56 PM EST

I think drunk driving should be proscuted as attempted murder even if noone get hurt. If you just happen to miss someone when driving/swerving you and they are just lucky. Next time you drive drunk you might actually hit them.

[ Parent ]
Not in the US (4.00 / 3) (#11)
by delmoi on Thu Jul 26, 2001 at 08:48:21 PM EST

If you hit someone and kill them while drunk in the US, you'll be prosicuted for murder not manslaughter, murder.
"'argumentation' is not a word, idiot." -- thelizman
[ Parent ]
Re: Not in the US (4.00 / 2) (#14)
by hackboy on Fri Jul 27, 2001 at 11:19:28 AM EST

If you hit someone and kill them while drunk in the US, you'll be prosicuted for murder not manslaughter, murder

Depends on the State. The charge here in Texas is called intoxication manslaughter. It's punishable by 2-20 years in prison. A man here in Austin just got the max for killing two exchange students in a wreck a couple years ago.

[ Parent ]
Ok, I'll bite. (2.71 / 7) (#5)
by Scott Robinson on Thu Jul 26, 2001 at 08:33:25 AM EST

How about we look at this very abstract issue this way (with the two given examples):

Which is more important, the ability for an entire societies' legal system to function properly


a young girl's life?


Wait a minute (3.66 / 6) (#8)
by drivers on Thu Jul 26, 2001 at 03:03:26 PM EST

You just compared the results of not enforcing one law permanently and not enforcing the other law* in one instance. Here, I'm going to make the same mistake you did, in reverse: What's more important, one lie under oath or the tens of thousands of lives lost due to driver error every year? * also, purjury is a crime. I don't think driving with a cell phone is illegal wherever that occured (but I think it should be).

[ Parent ]
Was Drivers Impaired? (2.50 / 2) (#13)
by SEWilco on Fri Jul 27, 2001 at 09:03:27 AM EST

Considering the discussion, perhaps Drivers should let us know whether he is driving while impaired during any of his comments.

OK, so I just couldn't resist a silliness...

[ Parent ]

Sounds completely reasonable to me (3.87 / 8) (#6)
by Hizonner on Thu Jul 26, 2001 at 01:55:30 PM EST

Archer lied on purpose, repeatedly, in a calculated way, with the active intent of causing serious damage to somebody else (losing a libel suit in the UK is not fun). The average person does not do that, and a person who does is acting in a deliberately evil way, and can furthermore be expected to continue to do so.

The driver hit the girl accidentally as a result of either a lapse in judgement or just plain bad luck. Everybody (and in this I include you and me) occasionally does unsafe things through poor judgement. Furthermore, this guy is probably not going to do it again.

Of course the guy who deliberately did something evil should be punished more than the one who caused an accident. That is, if you believe in the concept of punishment at all. And, of course the guy who's likely to repeat should be deterred more than the guy who's not. That is, if you believe in the concept of deterrence at all.

Well, a lot of questions (3.44 / 9) (#7)
by weirdling on Thu Jul 26, 2001 at 02:16:23 PM EST

First of all, the concept of cell-phone impairment is not established. People who drive while using cell phones have not been shown to be any more impaired than people putting on makeup, eating breakfast, whathaveyou. I, personally, actually find the handsfree kit to be much more distracting than a normal cellphone.

Second, you do not say if the young child was playing on the road or not. If she was on a road, then it is not the motorist's fault. Children need to be taught to keep off the streets rather than drivers taught to have to deal with the little buggers slowing down traffic and darting in front of two tons of steel.

Third, as has been pointed out, he was not convicted of manslaughter, which is something the law has for this particular thing when it is demonstrable that the person behaved in a dangerous way and subsequently killed someone.

I'm not doing this again; last time no one believed it.
Prejudice (4.25 / 4) (#12)
by painelf on Fri Jul 27, 2001 at 04:21:54 AM EST

1) In my experience, when you drive a vehicle that is moving with considerable speed, you need to be alert. You have to anticipate what's going to happen next; you have to stay in control of the situation. Humans are, generally, bad at multitasking. If you're putting on makeup, eating breakfeast, talking on the phone, getting a blowjob, thinking about your girlfriend who just broke up with you, YOU SHOULD NOT BE DRIVING. It is completely irresponsible, IMHO.

2) There are good reasons for children to be on the road. Perhaps she was crossing the road, and the driver didn't see a red light. Perhaps she was bicycling, and the driver didn't notice he was drifting of to the right.

[ Parent ]
Sidewalks, crosswalks (4.33 / 3) (#16)
by weirdling on Fri Jul 27, 2001 at 01:38:32 PM EST

Perhaps it is not common in England, but in the US, most places have sidewalks and crosswalks, and if a driver drifts onto a sidewalk and kills a kid, the kid's parents are going to take him to the cleaners.

Anyway, the number of brats running around in traffic seems to be increasing, and shouldn't be happening at all. People just expect cars to drive slowly and wander through these kids. Well, it makes me exceedingly nervous to be moving at all with kids playing in the streets. Besides, those roads were built for cars, and cars should get to use them. I have no sympathy for a child killed in a street.

Of course, if the driver ran a red light, he would certainly have been prosecuted for manslaughter here in the States. However, simply assuming that this is true shows bad form. There is no data to suggest that, and the fact that he was not so prosecuted seems to imply that he was not in the wrong, not the other way around. In other words, asserting that the government failed to handle the case correctly and therefore the driver must be in the wrong is to argue the case backwards, from conclusion to premise, without any data. If you can show that the driver behaved egregiously from data, then you can conclude validly that the court behaved egregiously, as well.

As to being alert while driving a vehicle, it's nice, but it's not going to happen. People will always do things in their vehicles. It's a fact of life. They have and always will breakfast, shave, chat, fiddle with radios, and generally ignore the road except in places where they think they need to be more alert.

This bears more discussion. If a road is dangerous, improving the road does not necessarily reduce the rate of accidents overall, according to empirical studies. What it does do is increase risk-taking elsewhere, suggesting that everyone has an 'acceptable level of risk' that they apply to driving circumstances. This is why people speed. This is why the eat breakfast. It's all within the 'acceptable level of risk'. Certainly, absolute risk levels could be lower, but a pragmatist has to point out the futility of trying to force the average person to reduce their 'acceptable level of risk' in the face of thousands of studies showing that, although you may stop cell phones as a risk factor, you will never stop simply talking in a car as a risk factor, or any one of the hundreds of risk factors that will eventually take its place.

And, for all that, congratulations, you just limited people's freedoms without good reason.

I'm not doing this again; last time no one believed it.
[ Parent ]
Children playing (5.00 / 1) (#20)
by Skwirl on Sat Jul 28, 2001 at 12:41:18 PM EST

>Besides, those roads were built for cars, and cars should get to use them.
>I have no sympathy for a child killed in a street. [...] And, for all that,
>congratulations, you just limited people's freedoms without good reason.

Uhm, you just limited the children's right to play hop-scotch in the cul-de-sac for the reason that you're too busy to pull over while talking on the phone. Anyways, it's much more reasonable to expect that licensed (that's right, driving is a privilege, not a right) adults are more responsible, and predictable, than children.

"Nothing in the world is more distasteful to a man than to take the path that leads to himself." -- Herman Hesse
[ Parent ]
Ok (4.50 / 2) (#21)
by weirdling on Mon Jul 30, 2001 at 05:59:11 PM EST

Now, you're assuming, wrongly, that this happened in a cul-de-sac. If it happened on a *road* that has *traffic*, and if the kid *ran out* *in front of* the vehicle, then the cell phone has *nothing* to do with it.

Anyway, whether or not adults are more responsible than children is somewhat of a strawman. Children should not be playing on the streets. By extension, we should see thousands of eviscerations of children by cellphone using highway drivers, but we do not, because the issue of using cellphones while driving is totally unrelated to that of children playing in the street.

The truth is that there is nowhere near enough evidence to indict the government for failure to prosecute justice, yet people insist on arguing otherwise. Why? What is the gratification of impugning a governmental agency over something that most likely did not happen?

Further, simply linking this kind of thing to cellphone usage is totally spurious. There must be considerably more research before a link between cellphone use and accidents becomes any more than another example of public hysteria fed by the post hoc fallacy. No doubt, those who are doing this feel good, but the fact is that they are wrong to do so, as taking away rights on a hunch is always wrong, and the more specious the hunch, the more wrong it is.

However, yes, I'm too busy to bother dealing with children playing on a street that bears even moderate traffic. They should not be doing it. It slows down important things, as compares to child's play. This is what parks are for.

I'm not doing this again; last time no one believed it.
[ Parent ]
Cell phones are more dangerous than eating. (4.00 / 2) (#17)
by aralin on Fri Jul 27, 2001 at 02:45:59 PM EST

The point is that when you eat, you do it at time, you consider safe and it takes just a few seconds and then you chew and have both your hands on wheel again.

On the other hand, when someone calls you, its on the time the other person wants, there is no consideration for your immediate situation and the type of activity is not so easily interuptable. Especially when its an important call.

Also people will likely drop a sandwich to handle a dangerous situation without much thinking (except for some women :)), but they will not just drop cell phone, because they feel it might break or whatever so it takes some time before they put it down. Did you ever count what is the difference in distance from spot to stop when you start acting two seconds later?

[ Parent ]

No statistical backup (4.00 / 1) (#22)
by weirdling on Mon Jul 30, 2001 at 09:36:07 PM EST

Unfortunately, your entire argument is analytical in an area where analytical arguments are not conclusive. That it appears that cellphones are more dangerous than eating through the analytic system you use may not be in doubt, but the only way to be sure is to use empirical evidence. So, the study would have to track at the minimum cellphone incidence in accidents, total accident numbers, cellphone usage independantly in a verifiable survey, and then correlate the numbers to show that a) cellphone usage tracks cellphone incidence in accidents, b) that the overall number of accidents significantly increases, controlling for all known accident risk factors, and c) that the increase of accidents is primarily in the section that contains cellphone incidences. In other words, if cellphone usage goes up 30%, accidents go up 3%, cellphone incidence in accidents to up 3%, and, numerically, the number of new cellphone users multiplied by the percentage of accidents overall is equal to 3% of the total accidents or very close, we can establish a reasonable correlation. Without those three numbers properly correlated, we're just making things up, and I'd rather not make things up unless we see a giant spike in accidents, which has not been perceived.

BTW, every argument you give for talking goes for driving with a two-year-old in the car...

I'm not doing this again; last time no one believed it.
[ Parent ]
IMHO... (4.28 / 7) (#9)
by jd on Thu Jul 26, 2001 at 04:45:01 PM EST

Lord Archer's history includes a lot of VERY questionable people, EXTREMELY dubious activity, a deliberate attempt to conceal this from the proper authorities, and an attempt to pervert the course of justice.

The driver, on the other hand, showed a slip in judgement and some negligence. Yes, he killed a child, as a result, and that cannot be ignored. I honestly doubt the man will ever forget that. If he uses the experience to become a better person, then to punish him further would serve no purpose.

It is for reasons like this, that I firmly believe that a justice system centered around vengence will punish the careless and free the dangerous.

It is also for this reason that I now believe that the entire justice system, as implemented by the US and the UK, is fundamentally flawed, with the US system the worse of the two.

A better solution, IMHO, is to argue that, in both cases, there is an almost childish lack of understanding of consequences. In Lord Archer's case, I'd argue that there is also good reason to believe that sexual addiction plays a significant role. If you accept that at least some apparently "normal" people are, in truth, emotionally ill, and that dangerous, even deadly, consequences can arise, then treating that illness makes much more sense than punishing the person for having it.

Sure, incarcerate Lord Archer for four years, or so. But given the choice of a sane Archer emerging, or a crazed, vengeful, psychotic one, I think the saner one would be preferable. Don't you?

Punishment for it's own sake is just revenge. (4.75 / 4) (#18)
by Jman1 on Fri Jul 27, 2001 at 02:47:21 PM EST

Q: What is a good reason to punish someone?

A: If it does something productive, like preventing that person or others from perpetrating similar crimes.

Q: What is a good reason to imprison someone?

A: If the person is a threat to others and there is no better solution, it is makes sense to restrain that person.

Q: So what alternatives do we have?

A: If the person is non-violent, why should we pay money to lock him/her up? Let them make up for their crime instead of sitting and rotting.

Q: What's the best way to do that?

A: I don't know, let's do some research.

We need to start focusing on *what works* rather than on what we think criminals deserve. That's the whole problem with people like George W, who believe that THEY KNOW THE TRUTH. Since they already know what's right, there's no reason to investigate to see what actually works.

archer (1.00 / 1) (#19)
by crazycanuck on Fri Jul 27, 2001 at 07:26:35 PM EST

is a good writer. his novels are funny.

my cat's breath smells like cat food.

Apples and Oranges | 22 comments (19 topical, 3 editorial, 0 hidden)
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