While we throw terms like"harsh", "retributive" and "punitive" around in describing the American penal system(s) today, the language has yet to capture the distinctive role that the subject position of the crime victim has in shaping the measure of punishment being handed down in US courtrooms and parole boards. While state penal codes continue to list punishment, deterrence, incapacitation, and even reform as primary goals of imprisonment, judges are increasingly vocal in insisting that sentences incorporate the scope of the victim's future suffering.
Case in point is the 30 year sentence handed down to a former hospital worker, Karen Parker, who admitted stealing syringes meant for patients and replacing them with used syringes contaminated with Hepatitis C, by Federal District Judge Robert E. Blackburn in Denver this week (read Kirk Johnson's reporting in the NYTimes). It is hard to imagine a stronger case of victim damage (short of death). They were "attacked" at a time of maximum vulnerability, while receiving pain medication prior to surgery in a hospital (Hobbes thought the fact of having to go to sleep at all was enough to justify a punitive sovereign, he did not anticipate surgical anesthesia) and now face a lifetime with an incurable, chronic, sometimes disabling and life threatening disease. Apparently it was hearing the victim testimony that lead Judge Blackburn to the unusual move of rejecting a 20 year sentence agreed to by the prosecutors, and imposing a 30 year sentence this week.
Parker's actions epitomized "selfishness" as the Judge emphasized. But neither was the admitted heroine addict the epitome of the cool calculating "hit-man" or "terrorist" who decides to sacrifice lives to their own deliberated ends.
What troubles me is using prison sentences to work out some kind of just measure of the victim's suffering. This logic inherently leads to excess. What if hundreds were contaminated (as has happened), would Parker have sentences her to life without parole? In other cases judges have handed down life-trashing sentences in the name of the victims' suffering even where the defendant clearly lacked meaningful capacity for responsible action due to severe schizophrenia (consider the Kip Kinkel case in Oregon in the late 1990s).
Clearly the victim's cannot be "compensated" through the punishment of Parker. They deserve better, starting with health insurance for those dropped or forced into a more expensive plan because of their condition. A stiff prison sentence is an appropriate way to communicate the seriousness of crime to the community, and thus to provide the victims public recognition of the terrible wrong they suffered. It is also an appropriate way to deter, although we have every reason to doubt the Karen Parkers of this world respond well to threats of lengthier punishment. A proper combination of restorative justice for the victims and appropriate restraint and punishment for the community is something we can achieve without decades of prison time. But trying to carve justice out of the time a body is locked in prison can only prove futile and cruel.
With our prisons filling with inmates facing lifetimes of punishment, we need to find a way to restore some measure to prison sentences.