Sunday, November 18, 2012

When Does a Life Become No Longer Worth Saving?

A 16-year-old boy drinks alcohol, gets behind the wheel of a pickup truck and crashes. The boy survives, but a friend of his who was a passenger is killed.

How should the law respond?

An Oklahoma judge decided that the boy, now 17, deserved a break. Though the boy pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter, the judge sentenced him to an unusual probation arrangement. Some of the conditions are pretty standard, such as wearing a monitoring bracelet and participating in counseling.

But Judge Mike Norman, 69, also sentenced the teen to attend a church of his choosing every week. From the ABC News account, the duration of this requirement was unclear. Presumably, however, it is for 10 years, as that is the length of the deferred sentence.

Naturally a sentence like this raises constitutional eyebrows about violation of the separation of church and state. Prof. Doug Berman, for example, casually implied as much when noting the case in his sentencing law blog.

A legal challenge is not likely to be coming from the defendant, though. “I usually represent outlaws and criminals,” his attorney told a local paper. “This is a kid that made a mistake. I think he’s worth saving.”

These words are very telling — not so much for what they say about this case, but for what they imply about most of the others. For most of the others are not saved. The common pattern is for them to become enmeshed in the justice system, with the chances of getting out diminishing with each repeat offense.

Yet if a 17-year-old with an otherwise clean record is worth saving, then what about an 18-year-old? What about a 17-year-old with a few blemishes on his or her record? And so on.

Questions like this remind me of the dialog between Abraham and God presented in Genesis 18. God is poised to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for wanton sinfulness. Abraham intercedes, arguing that is would be wrong to do so if a certain number of righteous people can be found there.

Abraham eventually gets God to agree to forego forsaking the two cities if ten righteous people can be found there. Eventually Sodom and Gomorrah met fateful ends anyway. But Judge Norman would surely approve of Abraham’s attempt to intercede.

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