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When Human Life Is Cheap

By Patricia Nell Warren

I used to think that Dan White's sentence was the benchmark for holding a human life cheap. This elected official loaded a handgun and went to San Francisco city hall with a "High Noon" kind of murder in his heart. He shot to death not one but two fellow politicians: gay supervisor Harvey Milk and San Francisco mayor George Moscone. For two killings, White got seven years, and was out in five.

But the other day, in Tennessee, Judge Doug Meyer opened a new frontier in the cheapening of life. He sentenced Adriana Blair Butler to 30 days in jail for shooting her mother's lover in the head. Thirty days...count them. The judge opted for leniency because, he said, there had been provocation. (After all, the mother's lover was a lesbian.) These days, it is easy to list the lenient sentences, or verdicts of "not guilty," for people who commit violent crimes against gay youth and gay adults. As the "Jenny Jones" murder trial moves ahead, America wonders if Jonathan Schmitz can make his gay victim look nasty enough to get off. If so, another blow will be struck at the value of life.

But there's a bigger problem here. These bargain-basement reductions on the price of life are affecting many Americans equally.

Today there is a widening gap between actual sentencing and what might be called punishment appropriate for the crime. Somehow, our whole system of justice has gotten dangerously twisted. Legislators, law officers, judges and juries don't just downsize penalties when it suits them (especially when it gets a white man off). They upsize penalties as well. In the last decade, there are whole rafts of new federal, state and local laws that criminalize actions once legal. Misdemeanors can be upgraded to felonies. Counts are compounded, adding up to lots of time. While both political parties make loud speeches about putting away serial killers and sexual predators, legislators are quietly putting away ordinary people and first-time offenders for things like driving without a license. The criminalization of smoking and being HIV-positive will be a windfall for the prison system. In several states, new "three strikes" laws propose to make crimes like prostitution a reason for life behind bars without parole.

Unthinking citizens who cheer "get tough" crime policy are simply not noticing the growing erosion of American life by this broadened definition of "crime" -- in, say, the low-income West Virginia family who must pay a staggering $5000 fine because their kid got caught doing graffiti.

In the territories of the old West, people were commonly hung for stealing a horse. If you were a black slave or Chinese or native American, you could be hung for the fun of it. Life was cheap on the frontier. Stakes were high, with vast land and wealth there for the taking. Law and order was thin, and often operated freely off personal bigotry and greed. Today, with our country so overcrowded and overheated, with a punitive spirit riding high, life is cheap again and we're sliding back into frontier justice. There are not only the old bigotries and greeds to contend with, like those which sentence people of color to more time for the same crime. There is also a spooky new bureaucratic drive to monitor and control people's every action and punish them harshly for all kinds of minor offenses. The U.S. has the largest prison population on earth, with 1 million people behind bars, and this is due as much to first offenses and victimless crime as it is to serial killers and drug dealers.

Murder and manslaughter sentences are a good way to measure the falling value of human life. With killer Butler's 30 days in mind, I pondered these sentences in the recent news:

Item: a California grandmother in her 60s was arrested for helpfully putting money in somebody's meter that had expired. She had no idea that this is now illegal. Grandma could get 4 months in jail -- four times longer than Butler.

Item: In Los Angeles, a homeless person now gets six months in jail for sleeping on the sidewalk, and another six months for stealing aluminum cans and other valuable recyclables from trash. Similar new laws target homeless all over the country.

Item: six months in jail for killing and eating a dog -- laws that target Asian immigrants with different culinary traditions.

Item: an 11-year-old South Carolina honor student with a clean record was actually arrested and sentenced to a year's probation for breaking a state law about weapons in school. She took a steak knife in her lunch box to cut her chicken with.(Gosh, where was the kind of leniency that handed 30 days to killer Butler?)

Indeed, kids are dirt cheap, as the lynch-mob mentality rides ever higher. Kids are subject to new criminalizations that would drive adults to riot -- from suspicionless drug-testing to repressive curfew laws. In Camden, N.J., kids age 6-17 are arrested if they're found on the street during school hours. Minors are more prosecuted as adults, with those who kill being targeted for life sentences. Minors are jailed merely on the parents' request, or by a judge, to "teach them a lesson". Parents are held cheap, too -- California parents can be jailed for a year, and fined $2500, for failing to control their children. Statistics already reveal the stark fact that "getting tough" often turns a youthful offender into a hardened, angry adult repeater.

The question must be asked: Why is frontier justice in the saddle again?

More than misguided demands for "more morality," it is "more money" that is driving this trend. "Gold in them thar hills" translates into prisons as the hot new growth industry. Job-hungry communities lure new prisons the way they used to lure industry. Massive fines, lawyers fees, jail and prison costs per prisoner, the privatizing of prison construction and operation, the growing power of prison guards' unions, all are creating new funding, cash flow and pork in a starved economy. Just as the old West suffered serious damage from out-of-control mining and logging, so our spiritual and economic landscape is eroding seriously, as more and more ordinary citizens are caught in the toils of sentencing inequities, and their rage and cynicism builds.

It is no wonder that more and more Americans today have less and less respect for the law.

As for Adriana Butler, she is lucky that she put a bullet in somebody's head. If she had put a quarter in somebody's parking meter, she might have done 4 times the time.


Patricia Nell Warren is author of "The Front Runner" and other bestselling books, as well as a widely published commentator. Her publisher is Wildcat Press, 8306 Wilshire Blvd. Box 8306, Beverly Hills, CA 90211. Copyright (c) 1996 by Patricia Nell Warren. All Rights Reserved.
©1996 Oasis Magazine. All Rights Reserved.