The danger we face

A few months back, I received a phone call from a father of a young daughter who was furious. He was outraged that an accused pedophile, who was turned in by a relative who witnessed the assault, was released back into the community, after barely half a day in custody.

I had a long discussion with the prosecutor. He explained Vermont’s statutes and said that under this arrangement, the accused would be supervised but that incarceration prior to trial was not an option under current law. This logic holds true for the drug addict who recently ran his car through an intersection killing two beloved residents. He was re-arrested on drug charges while free pending disposition of that case.

Yesterday, a known violent felon, with a notorious, verifiable, track record of wreaking havoc in the community, was freed in a plea deal. He spent years awaiting trial for, yet another, violent assault incident. He is now living in the same small town where many of his most egregious acts of criminality have occurred. The judge wished the defendant good luck going forward.

In a free society, it is an awesome burden in balancing public safety and civil rights. Our country was born fighting government overreach. The Bill of Rights, one of the cornerstones of our system, codifies protections of citizens against the overwhelming power of state prosecution. There are those who, in the heat of a crime wave or drug epidemic, see these protections as luxuries that threaten our way of life, but they do not. Dispensing with safeguards would do more damage than any number of serial murderers or drug gangs.

A state with the ability to summarily imprison citizens without due process is simply a gulag with the imprimatur of respectability. But what of a society where those who terrorize citizens — and in this particular case, “terrorize” is not an exaggeration — are allowed to flourish? What happens to the standing of authorities burdened by an underfunded system designed for a different time?

It is easy to castigate government officials who work under rules that appear to give public safety short shrift. They are hardworking people who dedicated their lives to upholding justice. Rather than reprimanding individuals, the public would be better served by seeking the remedies from those on the front lines. How can we give government the proper tools to ensure the best outcomes? Presently, the system has produced a culture in which people feel that the police and courts safeguard predators and sociopaths at the expense of the law-abiding citizen. On the other side, there are many cautionary tales of bad policy born of the rage of voters. California’s “three strikes” law, a sentencing rubric which throws someone in jail for decades for stealing a slice of pizza, only adds to the cynicism and confusion. We must carefully craft rules that balance the rights of the accused with the needs of the public.

The danger we face is not from deranged criminals. It is from a system that encourages average citizens to turn away from established, acceptable practices of managing those who threaten our liberty. The opening scene of The Godfather shows a hardworking immigrant, Bonasera, who has had a daughter brutally beaten, asking Don Corlene for the justice that the system was unable to deliver. Bonasera explains: “They went free that very day! I stood in the courtroom like a fool, and those two bastards, they smiled at me. Then I said to my wife, “For justice, we must go to Don Corleone.”

There is a path forward that doesn’t require a Godfather. The answer lies in having judges, law enforcement and lawmakers enter into a lengthy discussion focusing on preventing career criminals from triumphing. I wish good luck to all the victims: all the parents, family and friends of the brutalized and all those who now feel the need to carry firearms and lock their doors.

Bram Towbin

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