It was an overcast, windy afternoon outside Newark, N.J. The forecast storm overhead was replaced by the one that always attended the phrase, “Wait until your father gets home.”
On this occasion, I had back-talked a teacher in my eighth-grade math class. I was grounded for a month and ordered to personally apologize to Mr. Ortiz.
My father was a good man. He worked hard, put bread on our table, made time to throw the ball and coach Little League — and discipline me. Whether it was cussing, talking back, fighting (outside of Police Athletic League), bad grades or ditching, the lines were well-drawn and — be it allowance withholding, backyard hard labor, grounding or a good old fashioned butt whipping — consistently imposed.
It was a system that worked and kept me out of Juvenile Hall and got me into college.
If you look throughout American penal codes at any of the philosophies of the law and punishment for its violation, you consistently find three elements — retribution, rehabilitation and deterrence.
Retribution addresses the necessity for punishment of the offending individual when the law is broken and the concomitant appearance of vigilantism when it is not. Rehabilitation speaks to the treatment of the personal factors that lead the individual to commit crimes and avoid recidivism.
However, prompted by the recent sentencing in the Coulter Mann fatal wreck that killed Kenny Jones, it is the element of deterrence and its weekly depreciation in Del Norte County that militates this brief essay.
Mr. Mann crossed Highway 101 into the oncoming lane, killing Yurok tribal member Kenny Jones. Forensic evidence revealed no application of Mann’s brakes before impact. Several hours after the collision, Mr. Mann’s blood sample was found to possess alcohol amounting to 2½ times the legal limit.
He was initially charged with gross vehicular manslaughter with intoxication, a felony carrying a sentence of 4, 6 or 10 years in state prison. That charge was inexplicably reduced after my suspension. He was convicted of felony DUI with great bodily injury, which drew a Probation Department recommendation for the maximum six years, noting Mr. Mann’s continued denial of driving drunk.
At sentencing, visiting Judge Richard Kalustian incredibly dismissed the great bodily injury (i.e. death) three-year enhancement, sentencing Mr. Mann to 3 years, reviewable for parole in 1½ years — hardly the value of a life to many.
More amazingly, Judge Kalustian subsequently is now reviewing that lenient sentence with an eye toward further reduction.
As stated at California Pena Code 1170(a)(1):
The Legislature finds and declares that the purpose of imprisonment for crime is punishment. This purpose is best served by terms proportionate to the seriousness of the offense with provision for uniformity in the sentences of offenders committing the same offense under similar circumstances.
Translated, to the next person out there who wants break the law, “you play, you pay,” because if you do this, we will do that to you, which in the Mann case constitutes nothing but a “green light” for the next DUI-related death.
Sadly, the Mann case is not unique, but illustrative of the recent evaporation of the law’s deterrent effect in our county. One has only to look at the cases involving Eileen Silvey and the Senior Center, Fred Stockett at Arbor Glen, Sean Eaddy and the marijuana-growing operation and the felonies, Sarah Anderson and the abuse of a pitbull named London — all reduced to one no-jail-time misdemeanor each, to name just a few.
One recent evening, I stood with the family and friends of Kenny Jones as Coulter Mann surrendered to custody. I saw the tears, the anger and bewilderment at how this could be occurring. I thought gratefully of my father’s laying down the law and sticking to it and its absence that night.
And last, I thought of all the times I’ve heard, “There’s no law North of the Klamath,” which the present absence of the law’s deterrent effect will continue to bring forth echoes in our community.
Jon Alexander is the suspended district attorney of Del Norte County.