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Let's Get Some New Tools

When I was a kid, we sometimes got into fights. Occasionally, we got into rock fights. Now rock fights can be pretty dangerous things. After all, even a one- or two-pound solid projectile, properly aimed and delivered, can kill.

But in my neighborhood, no one ever died in a rock fight; no one went to jail; no one even called the cops.

And our parents, when they found out, often spanked us.

Today, I’m an attorney; a lawyer; the guy who, among other things, picks up the pieces after rock fights. I practice criminal defense law, including juvenile defense, in the belly-button of the San Joaquin Valley of California. For those who don’t know, that’s Fresno, Clovis, Visalia, Hanford, Madera and a few other small towns. Here, the scenario I described above would no longer be handled the way it was when I was a kid. Today, this scenario would result in several charges. Many of them would be felonies. Juveniles — children — would be charged with criminal assault (at the very least.)

After all, as Fresno Mayor Alan Autry put it,

[W]e love our children too much to treat this like it was just a childhood dispute, when in fact the consequences could have been tragic. (Juliana Barbassa, “Police defend their arrest of 11-year-old girl” (July 19, 2005)

We just don’t love them enough to make sure they grow up without felony records over what is, essentially, normal childhood behavior which should be left to the parents to handle.

And the parents? Disciplining children today can land parents in jail. In California, the legislature has gone so far as to propose a law (AB 2943)which, if it had existed when I was a child, could have resulted in repeated criminal charges against my parents. Ultimately, I would have been removed from the home.

Now, mind you, I did not like being spanked. I sometimes thought my parents were arbitrary in the application of discipline. And the belt always hurt and occasionally raised a welt or two. But I actually had quite good parents. They raised four fairly well-adjusted kids who now (with the exception of me) have families of their own. Saddling my parents with a criminal history and breaking up our family over it would have been nuts.

Likewise, my parents occasionally argued. I never saw my father ever once hit, strike, or otherwise abuse my mother. (I was raised in one of those homes where males just did not hit females, of any age. Well, unless they were sisters. And even then you usually got spanked. (See above!)) I remember a couple times when she was very upset or scared about something that my mother slapped at my father. No one ever called the police; no one went to jail. And, ultimately, my parents appear to have had a happy marriage which has lasted more than 50 years and counting.

But my mom could have gone to jail for slapping my father if one of the prosecutors I know today had heard about the slapping. At the very least, she might have been charged and “allowed” to enter a plea agreement whereby she’d get 52 weeks of anger management classes.

My father, on the other hand, would probably be in prison for killing the prosecutor.

Please do not misunderstand me: sometimes, rock-throwers and child- and spouse-slappers need to be arrested, convicted and should go to jail or prison. There have always been laws on the books for dealing with these situations.

The problem is that these days too many police officers and prosecutors seem to think that every misunderstanding that could be prosecuted under these laws should be prosecuted under these laws. And that’s just crazy.

In fact, it’s more than crazy. It’s destructive. It destroys lives. It destroys families. Ultimately, is has a damaging effect on society as a whole and debases the very laws the “enforcers” think they’re upholding.

There’s an old saying that goes, “When the only tool you have is a hammer, pretty soon everything starts to look like a nail.”

Maybe it’s time we started, as a society, to focus on acquiring some other tools.

Because we’re not all criminals.