When I was a kid, we sometimes got into fights.  Occasionally, we got into rock fights.  Now rock fights can be pretty dangerous things.  After all, even a one- or two-pound solid projectile, properly aimed and delivered, can kill.

But in my neighborhood, no one ever died in a rock fight; no one went to jail; no one even called the cops.

And our parents, when they found out, often spanked us.

Today, I’m an attorney; a lawyer; the guy who, among other things, picks up the pieces after rock fights.  I practice criminal defense law, including juvenile defense, in the belly-button of the San Joaquin Valley of California.  For those who don’t know, that’s Fresno, Clovis, Visalia, Hanford, Madera and a few other small towns.  Here, the scenario I described above would no longer be handled the way it was when I was a kid.  Today, this scenario would result in several charges.  Many of them would be felonies.  Juveniles — children — would be charged with criminal assault (at the very least.)

After all, as Fresno Mayor Alan Autry put it,

[W]e love our children too much to treat this like it was just a childhood dispute, when in fact the consequences could have been tragic.  (Juliana Barbassa, “Police defend their arrest of 11-year-old girl” (July 19, 2005) SignsOnSanDiego.com.)

We just don’t love them enough to make sure they grow up without felony records over what is, essentially, normal childhood behavior which should be left to the parents to handle.

And the parents?  Disciplining children today can land parents in jail.  In California, the legislature has gone so far as to propose a law (AB 2943) which, if it had existed when I was a child, could have resulted in repeated criminal charges against my parents.  Ultimately, I would have been removed from the home.

Now, mind you, I did not like being spanked.  I sometimes thought my parents were arbitrary in the application of discipline.  And the belt always hurt and occasionally raised a welt or two.  But I actually had quite good parents.  They raised four fairly well-adjusted kids who now (with the exception of me) have families of their own.  Saddling my parents with a criminal history and breaking up our family over it would have been nuts.

Likewise, my parents occasionally argued.  I never saw my father ever once hit, strike, or otherwise abuse my mother.  (I was raised in one of those homes where males just did not hit females, of any age.  Well, unless they were sisters.  And even then you usually got spanked.  (See above!))  I remember a couple times when she was very upset or scared about something that my mother slapped at my father.  No one ever called the police; no one went to jail.  And, ultimately, my parents appear to have had a happy marriage which has lasted more than 50 years and counting.

But my mom could have gone to jail for slapping my father if one of the prosecutors I know today had heard about the slapping.  At the very least, she might have been charged and “allowed” to enter a plea agreement whereby she’d get 52 weeks of anger management classes.

My father, on the other hand, would probably be in prison for killing the prosecutor.

Please do not misunderstand me: sometimes, rock-throwers and child- and spouse-slappers need to be arrested, convicted and should go to jail or prison.  There have always been laws on the books for dealing with these situations.

The problem is that these days too many police officers and prosecutors seem to think that every misunderstanding that could be prosecuted under these laws should be prosecuted under these laws.  And that’s just crazy.

In fact, it’s more than crazy.  It’s destructive.  It destroys lives.  It destroys families.  Ultimately, is has a damaging effect on society as a whole and debases the very laws the “enforcers” think they’re upholding.

There’s an old saying that goes, “When the only tool you have is a hammer, pretty soon everything starts to look like a nail.”

Maybe it’s time we started, as a society, to focus on acquiring some other tools.

Because we’re not all criminals.

10 comments

  1. I think Jo Nathan hit the nail on the head (must’ve had a hammer!) with this. Too many people are looking for risk-free lives. If anything goes wrong, someone (else) must pay for it.

    How do we get past that?

  2. I think Jo Nathan hit the nail on the head (must’ve had a hammer!) with this. Too many people are looking for risk-free lives. If anything goes wrong, someone (else) must pay for it.

    How do we get past that?

  3. Well said; and I second shg’s and the other comments. I grew up in exactly the same sort of household. My dad never hit my mom, although they did argue, and I was never allowed to retaliate against my sister. Ever. Boy, did she get away with things. I can also relate to the rocks being thrown. One time, I got a rock in the noggin when “playing” with some friends in a field. Calling the police was not even considered, although I was seriously cut and had quite a bump for a while. On another occasion, a friend and I were horsing around at lunch, and he kind of pushed me into a table. I ended up with a concussion, and spent three days in the hospital. Again, no police, and not even the thought of a civil action. I bet it would turn out differently today, given the role school officials have been charged with (or assumed themselves). I think some of the reason that there has been an explosion in the number of unfortunate but pretty ordinary events that have been criminalized is that many people think they should be protected by the government. But it’s just not possible. Bad things happen. You can’t protect people from themselves. Criminalizing it makes it easier for people to shirk responsibility and evade learning how to avoid bad situations or what to do differently in the future. In my case, I can’t think of a single benefit that would have accrued from any criminal proceedings against the guy who shoved me into the table, but I can see how it would cost a bunch to have done so. Thanks for the post.

  4. Well said; and I second shg’s and the other comments. I grew up in exactly the same sort of household. My dad never hit my mom, although they did argue, and I was never allowed to retaliate against my sister. Ever. Boy, did she get away with things. I can also relate to the rocks being thrown. One time, I got a rock in the noggin when “playing” with some friends in a field. Calling the police was not even considered, although I was seriously cut and had quite a bump for a while. On another occasion, a friend and I were horsing around at lunch, and he kind of pushed me into a table. I ended up with a concussion, and spent three days in the hospital. Again, no police, and not even the thought of a civil action. I bet it would turn out differently today, given the role school officials have been charged with (or assumed themselves). I think some of the reason that there has been an explosion in the number of unfortunate but pretty ordinary events that have been criminalized is that many people think they should be protected by the government. But it’s just not possible. Bad things happen. You can’t protect people from themselves. Criminalizing it makes it easier for people to shirk responsibility and evade learning how to avoid bad situations or what to do differently in the future. In my case, I can’t think of a single benefit that would have accrued from any criminal proceedings against the guy who shoved me into the table, but I can see how it would cost a bunch to have done so. Thanks for the post.

  5. There was a recent newspaper article in our town with the headline “Plea deals: Are they soft or necessary?” (read the whole sickening thing here: http://tinyurl.com/c3hfkh). I am dumbfounded as to why people think that every person CHARGED with a crime is getting off the hook if they take a lesser offense. The system is built on police and prosecutors aiming as high as they can in an attempt to make anything stick. Like in any negotiation, they “open high,” knowing that their first offer is probably unreasonable, but it gives them room to work.

    As you point out, indiscriminate charging of potentially life- or livelihood-ending crimes is unduly tearing families apart. As a first year law student, I’m ashamed to learn that this is our system of justice.

    lberguss last blog post..Advice on “facebook and other sites” while job seeking

  6. There was a recent newspaper article in our town with the headline “Plea deals: Are they soft or necessary?” (read the whole sickening thing here: http://tinyurl.com/c3hfkh). I am dumbfounded as to why people think that every person CHARGED with a crime is getting off the hook if they take a lesser offense. The system is built on police and prosecutors aiming as high as they can in an attempt to make anything stick. Like in any negotiation, they “open high,” knowing that their first offer is probably unreasonable, but it gives them room to work.

    As you point out, indiscriminate charging of potentially life- or livelihood-ending crimes is unduly tearing families apart. As a first year law student, I’m ashamed to learn that this is our system of justice.

    lberguss last blog post..Advice on “facebook and other sites” while job seeking

  7. I wrote once that one of the problems in society today is that after every “incident” reported on the news, the story closes “no word whether charges will be filed.” This causes us to be in the mold of thinking that every accident, fight, dispute, mistake, has the possibility of ending up as an arrest.

    When I was a public defender I spent 8 months in juvenile court. I watched cases come in that would have been home or school discipline type stuff when I was a kid. You used to be able to throw a baseball through the neighbors window, have mom or dad take you down the street to apologize, and pay for the window out of your piggy bank. Now its a police matter.

    brian tannebaums last blog post..Dear Blake Nordstrom, As Pink Floyd Says "Leave Those Kids Alone"

  8. I wrote once that one of the problems in society today is that after every “incident” reported on the news, the story closes “no word whether charges will be filed.” This causes us to be in the mold of thinking that every accident, fight, dispute, mistake, has the possibility of ending up as an arrest.

    When I was a public defender I spent 8 months in juvenile court. I watched cases come in that would have been home or school discipline type stuff when I was a kid. You used to be able to throw a baseball through the neighbors window, have mom or dad take you down the street to apologize, and pay for the window out of your piggy bank. Now its a police matter.

    brian tannebaums last blog post..Dear Blake Nordstrom, As Pink Floyd Says "Leave Those Kids Alone"

  9. Great post, capturing the nature of a society that looks to criminal law as a solution for every problem, large and small. The law is a hammer indeed, and a heavy, unwieldly and blunt one at that.

    shgs last blog post..Unstimulated

  10. Great post, capturing the nature of a society that looks to criminal law as a solution for every problem, large and small. The law is a hammer indeed, and a heavy, unwieldly and blunt one at that.

    shgs last blog post..Unstimulated

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