Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Crime and Punishment

I don’t know Jeremiah H. or Stephen M., but I know they hoisted a few (or quite a few) and got into a peck of trouble. Kalamazoo Circuit Court Justice Pamela Lightvoet recently sentenced both men for driving while intoxicated.

Jeremiah got 30 days in the slammer; Stephen got 75. Each also was placed on probation for several years and fined $500 plus court costs and fees. Why Stephen got more jail time is not explained in the newspaper item. Perhaps he was drinking doubles.

Things certainly have changed dramatically over the past half century in how we deal with drinking drivers in our society. There never was sympathy for those who caused injuries, deaths, or severe property damage. There was, however, a tolerant approach to imbibers whose crime had no victim, especially when it was a first offense.

My mother, a rigid teetotaler, staunchly opposed locking up drunks. Surprised? She reasoned that jail time did nothing to promote rehabilitation, and that the families of those taken out of circulation were the real victims when the breadwinner was unavailable for work. She was not alone in holding that opinion. Most people, including law officers, had little enthusiasm for punishing drunks.

In the summer of 1956, I got a first-hand look at the type of lenient law enforcement that prevailed. I was a journalism intern at my hometown newspaper in northern Wisconsin, the Tomahawk Leader. Publisher Ken Keenan thought a good experience for a fledgling reporter would be a night ride with the police patrol. He arranged it.

The trip started at 10 p.m. Nothing at all happened during my first hours in the squad car. The officer made what he said was a normal drive back and forth through the small city. He answered a few radio messages, none requiring action. About 1:30 a.m., we got behind an old pickup truck as we headed north. The truck was moving slowly and erratically toward the Fourth Street Bridge. The bridge had a single, narrow lane in each direction. The truck started to weave across both lanes, bouncing off the steel guard rails on either side.

The officer turned on his red light. The truck slowed to a crawl, pulled to the right, and stopped just after it left the bridge. We stopped right behind it. We sat for a few minutes. Nothing happened. The cop got out, walked to the truck, and opened the driver’s door. As the door swung out, the driver came with it. He fell out full-length onto the pavement.

After shaking the man gently and exchanging a few words with him, the officer got the driver to his feet and stuffed him back into the cab of the truck. The patrolman got back into the squad car, made a U-turn, and headed south toward the business district. The truck didn’t move.

“Are you just going to leave him there?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah. That’s old Charley. Most nights, about this time after the bars close, he heads for home. He drives real slow and never hurts much of anything. He dings the bridge a little sometimes, but it’s pretty old and banged up anyway. We’ll just let him sleep it off for a while. Then he’ll head out on County CC to his place.”

In 2009 in Michigan, Charley might have gotten something more like life in prison instead of a nap. My newly adopted home state has some of the toughest drunk driving laws in the nation. With New Year’s Eve coming up, we can expect a slew of reminders not to drink and drive, and a slew of arrests when the reminders are ignored, followed by many jail terms early in 2010.

In the 50s, getting bombed on New Year’s Eve was almost a requirement. Usually, it was a great party night. This year, I’m not drinking unless the bar is within walking distance of our house. Most likely, I’ll have a couple of glasses of wine in front of our TV set, wish Sandy a Happy New Year sometime around midnight, and go to bed.

New Year’s Day is my birthday. I’d rather not spend it in jail. But, darn, New Year’s Eve used to be fun.

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