Michaelene Pendleton

The idea of equal justice under the law has been codified in Western jurisprudence for several thousand years.

Among the first mentions of equality of punishment is the Code of Hammurabi, dating to Babylon around 1760 BCE. In the Book of Exodus in the Bible, 21:24 states “eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” as the exemplar of how justice should be meted out. Retributive justice requires proportionate punishment, in other words, “let the punishment fit the crime.” As a society, we hold the rule of law to be the basic condition required to operate an orderly and secure society with its promise of equal justice under the law.

The whole system breaks down when plea bargaining enters the mix. Plea bargaining allows felons to plead guilty to lesser charges. It invalidates both proportionate punishment and equal justice under the law. Two recent local cases demonstrate that invalidation: one involving kidnapping and assault, and one involving a sex offender.

In the kidnapping and assault case, four men kidnapped and repeatedly beat a man for several hours. According to newspaper reports, the woman whose house was invaded and the victim taken, was there with her children. She pleaded to have all the men receive strict sentencing. Generally, violent crimes in the presence of children are deemed much more severe.

But here’s what happened. All the men blamed alcohol and were “remorseful” about their parts in what was undeniably a voluntary action. Their various charges, including first degree felony aggravated kidnapping, were pleaded down to third degree felonies and misdemeanor A and B charges, plus financial restitution to the victim. Not one of them will do jail time. So much for retributive justice.

The sex offender crime is even more disturbing.

A 20-year-old Moab man was charged with three first-degree felony counts for sexual abuse of a child, an 8-year-old girl who was assaulted five times over a period of days. He, too, expressed remorse, but minimized the enormity of his crime by saying “I messed up,” according to the Times-Independent (March 31, 2016), which further reported the mother as saying that the girl “has gone through counseling and ‘she’s doing well. She’s very resilient.’”

Poppycock. No 8-year-old child is that resilient. Sexual abuse is a crime whose consequences live down through the years of the abused child’s life, often twisting that life away from ever being able to accept intimacy in a loving, trusting way. If any crime deserves punishment to the full extent of the law, this is it. And yet this case was plea bargained down to a suspended 15-year prison sentence, psychological treatment, and a fine of $1,050. The Bureau of Justice notes that sex offenders who actually do prison time are four times more likely to be rearrested than other categories of criminals. There are no recidivism figures for offenders who are let off with a slap on the wrist.

To most of us, these crimes are horrific, their victims thrown into a nightmare in real life, one that changes their reality forever. It is likely that they will never again feel safe in the way that most of us take for granted. Especially when the perpetrators of these crimes are left free to walk the streets.

In essence, plea bargaining says that the crime wasn’t really all that bad and we’ll let you get away with it this time, but don’t ever do it again. When we trivialize the severity of kidnapping, aggravated assault and sexual abuse, something is wrong with the system. The punishment is obviously not fitting the crime. Plea bargaining makes a mockery of equal justice under the law. Which is no justice at all.

Michaelene Pendleton spent most of her working life as a psychologist and has written fiction and nonfiction for more years than she likes to count. Bouncing between Alaska and Moab, she seems to have settled here, for better or worse.