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Someday, we might learn to act before the tragedy

Published February 8, 2004

We keep hearing about "time bombs" in our society. But not until they go off.

Joseph P. Smith, now charged in the slaying of 11-year-old Carlie Brucia, had a long arrest record and two previous incidents involving violent attacks on women, complete strangers just walking down the road.

James A. Webb, who gunned down two people Jan. 29 in a Seminole real estate office, had at least three prior episodes of rage-filled attacks on strangers: choking a security guard, threatening to cut a man's throat and jumping a hospital counter to defy a nurse.

Maybe it's time to talk about whether our society's law - and attitude - should be different when it comes to repeated violence and the threat it demonstrates.

Maybe it's time to talk about whether a citizen who repeatedly shows the capacity for violence should be kept, legally speaking, on a shorter leash.

A time-bomb law.

Obviously, there are practical and constitutional problems. You can't punish people for crimes they haven't committed.

But once violent actors demonstrate the capacity and the willingness to harm others, does society have a right to take steps to manage the risk?

We already do that for certain sexual offenders. In addition to their criminal cases, our courts can decide they remain a danger to society. Society stays in their lives by monitoring them and alerting other citizens.

The sexual-predator laws as written go overboard in some cases, but that is a topic for another day. The point is that there is a legal basis for identifying citizens who pose a threat to the public.

Yet our criminal justice system treats violence in an old-fashioned way. It treats violence episodically, as individual incidents instead of something deeper.

So, sir, you went berserk and tried to choke a stranger? Well, don't do it again. See the probation officer on the way out.

Instead, maybe it should be:

You went berserk and tried to choke a complete stranger? That is so far out of line in a modern civilized society that we are going to have an ongoing relationship to figure out what's going on.

Or at least, we might do that after the second time. Let's say the second time a guy wraps his hands around somebody's throat, maybe a fine, jail time and probation just doesn't cut it.

For all of our laws, and all of our prisons, we do not take violence seriously enough. It is a low-rent offense, something that people just do to one another. Try to throttle a guy at Target, that's no big deal; get caught with the wrong drug, you go to prison.

In Smith's case, he pleaded no contest to aggravated battery for attacking a stranger on the roadside, breaking her nose with a motorcycle helmet.

Doesn't attacking a stranger on the roadside and bashing her in the face with a motorcycle helmet set off long-term alarm bells?

Apparently not. Our society's response was something out of the 1950s: 60 days in jail and two years of probation. Despite subsequent violations of that probation, our system still did not sit up and take notice. (Do NOT make the mistake of trying to blame a single judge for a systematic indifference.)

There are at least two models for the attitudinal change we need. Those models are are drunken driving and domestic violence. Each, in an earlier day, was considered a relatively minor, even almost humorous, matter.

It took decades of hard work by the families of DUI victims to make society realize what drunken driving really is: a homicide waiting to happen. Nobody thinks it is a laughing matter any more.

Domestic violence, a term that smells faintly of old condescension, also has undergone a transformation. Modern, professional law enforcement agencies take it seriously. Our society does not tolerate it.

Now, we should talk about whether a pattern of violence by a "time bomb" citizen can be the basis of societal intervention.

Maybe there is a way to draw a narrow definition of acts that are ominous enough to win you an up close and personal relationship with the state.

Maybe not. Maybe we're stuck forever with hearing the quotes of neighbors saying, "I just knew something like this was going to happen one day."

But at least we might try.

[Last modified February 8, 2004, 07:44:28]

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