But when it comes to drunken-driving accidents that kill or disable someone, the punishment never but never fits the suffering of the victims and their families.
This grim reality was driven home last week with the announcement that Rams linebacker Leonard Little would receive what seemed a slap on the wrist for involuntary manslaughter in the traffic death last October of Susan Gutweiler. Little was charged with being legally drunk (at nearly twice the blood-alcohol limit) when his Lincoln Navigator broadsided Gutweiler's car in downtown St. Louis.
On its face, the plea deal approved by Judge Patricia Cohen just didn't feel right. Little would serve 90 nights in "shock time" at the City Workhouse over the next year, but the sentence would be structured around his day job as a football player. What's more, if he served his probation and did his community service, his record would be cleansed of the criminal conviction.
My first reaction, like that of most others, was that it was pretty sad that we'd turn the workhouse into a hotel and sadder that football practice would have anything to do with anything in this case. And the worst part would be saying, four years down the road, "No harm, no foul," to a guy who killed a beloved mother, wife and sister who was innocently going to pick up her son at a concert.
I suggested as much on our TV show Donnybrook last Thursday night.
Then came the facts.
If Leonard Little got special treatment at all, it was on the tough side. Every defense attorney I spoke with and there were quite a few thought it was pretty much business as usual in a major city for a first-time offender to receive little or no jail time.
Involuntary manslaughter, it turns out, is a Class C felony, meaning that the maximum punishment is seven years. It is unheard-of to "max out" a first-time offender for any crime, especially one involving no criminal intent, and, as one attorney told me, "Just about zero out of 100 do time in the city for Class C felonies."
Meanwhile, the terms of Little's probation are probably harsher than your typical involuntary-manslaughter convict's. He has to stay out of bars, submit to drug and alcohol testing, perform 1,000 hours of community service, work with Mothers Against Drunk Driving and and this is a bit unusual make a "good-faith effort" to satisfy any civil judgments against him.
Cohen warned him that if he messes up, he gets the full seven years, which, the lawyers tell me, is the reason he got a suspended imposition of sentence rather than the more common suspended execution of sentence. Had Little been sentenced to the four years recommended by the circuit attorney and then gotten a suspended execution of sentence, messing up would have cost him four years, not seven.
It still sounds light to me for taking a life, and it's hard not to sympathize with the Gutweiler family, who expressed outrage at the plea agreement. But one cold reality is irrefutable: People don't do years in prison for taking other people's lives in traffic accidents, alcohol-related or not.
Maybe that should change, maybe it shouldn't at least, if society can come up with a meaningful sort of punishment in its place but there is no reason that a sea change in the criminal-justice system should start with Leonard Little just because he plays football.
"I would commend the judge for giving a sentence that is consistent with the sentences in her district (the city) without regard to his celebrity status," Scott Rosenblum, Little's attorney, tells me. "She had to know this would be an extremely unpopular decision, but she stayed consistent to her circuit."
But what if Little were just another 24-year-old black man in the city, one who couldn't afford the services of one of the city's most accomplished defense attorneys? Would he be so lucky?
"It's hard to look at cases in a vacuum," Rosenblum says. "Every case has its own peculiarities. Having said that, I'm confident that this judge would have treated that hypothetical individual in the same manner she treated Leonard Little."
From all evidence, Rosenblum is right, whether he should be or not.
That is small comfort to the grieving Gutweilers, who asked Cohen to impose the four years recommended by the prosecutors.
"We believe the sentence should at least reflect the misery and loss his conduct has caused us and not just be a sentence of nothing more than a temporary inconvenience in his work schedule," William Gutweiler, the victim's husband, told Cohen.
That's not how the system works, though, and with all respect to the family's understandable rage, Cohen steered a pretty even course. I still don't like the part about Little's record being cleansed I think being branded a felon for life would be deserved but the notion of making Little pay his debt in a manner designed to avoid future tragedies would seem more valuable to society than dumping him in the slammer for a year or two (which is what a four-year sentence would likely mean).
If you think about it, you can't truly balance the punishment with the suffering in this sort of case, unless you impose the death penalty on someone who commits involuntary manslaughter. That's not going to happen, nor should it, and the next level down a handful of years in prison is likely going to do less to prevent future tragedies than the sort of community-service program required of Little.
There was a report not long ago about a judge who sentenced a drunken driver who killed someone to write a $1 check to the victim's family every week for the rest of his life. He tried to write them all at once to get his own suffering out of the way and the judge tore them up and threatened jail if he didn't follow the sentence.
That sort of approach the more dynamic the better is probably the direction in which society should be moving to deal with the noxious problem of drunken driving. It may sound sexy to impose extreme prison time as punishment for drunken drivers who hurt or kill somebody, but in the real world it's not going to happen. And even if it did, it wouldn't be much of a deterrent to someone when they're drunk.
The Leonard Littles of the world should be forced to pay their debts in a way that can help make a difference for the future. And those payments in dollars, community service or any other constructive form should last as long as the suffering of families like the Gutweilers.
That would be forever.
LEONARD LITTLE: JUSTICE ISN'T AN OPTION