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Needed: level heads

Come, let us reason together February 23, 2015 at 2:52 a.m.

"I want to be very clear that no one who supports this bill is in any way indifferent to the victims."

--Greg Leding, state representative from Fayetteville.

It's a shame that Mr. Leding felt he needed to say he wasn't indifferent to the murdered or their families. But that's what it can come to when a body politic, even one composed of decent, law-abiding people in the main, a community like Arkansas, comes too close to becoming a society of distrust in which nothing, however obvious, can be taken for granted. Which may explain why Mr. Leding had to say what he did the other day.

Greg Leding, a Democrat serving in the Arkansas House, and Missy Irvin, a Republican over in the state Senate, have a more than reasonable bit of legislation pending at the General Assembly. There's no reason to make any apologies for it. Their proposal is both just and merciful, for it might keep juveniles from serving life sentences when they've been convicted of murder.

As the law now stands, a kid could be sent away for life--without the possibility of parole--for a crime committed before he turned 18 years old. Talk about tragedy all around. But now this bill would make the juvenile defendant who's convicted of killing somebody eligible for parole--only eligible, not guaranteed parole--after 28 years in prison. When he would be anything but a kid by then.

And, yes, the bill as written would apply to youthful offenders serving their sentences even now.

The debate over this bill became all too emotional all too fast when it came up at the Ledge.

Those who've lost family to murderers were heard from. How can anyone criticize them? They are still in mourning, no matter how long ago they've lost a mother or father or child. And those whose child killed another have lost a member of their family, too. To argue political or legal points with mourners of either kind would take a harder heart than we possess. Or anybody should.

Better to just nod in decent sympathy, understanding that nobody can hurt more than a mother or father who has lost a child to the grave, or to the grave called prison.

Also heard from in this debate were various prosecuting attorneys, including Pulaski County's, the usually level-headed Larry Jegley, who also serves as the head of the state's Prosecuting Attorneys Association, and who opposes this bill. Which is understandable, too, even though not to such an extent all need agree with its position.

Why oppose this bill? Larry Jegley told lawmakers that prosecutors already consider a juvenile's circumstances when filing charges. Besides, he said, juries make the sentencing decisions in these cases and their decision should be respected. He could have been a public official named Pontius Pilate washing his hands of another lawful decision some time ago. Hey, this wasn't his decision but theirs.

But aren't DAs, and juries, people, too? That is, imperfect. And do they not have hearts and minds, too, as well as a duty to respect the workings of the law and the way the wheels of justice grind slow but exceedingly fine over the years?

But the prosecutor didn't stop with his respect for jurors. He went one step further, telling lawmakers that making convicts convicted long ago eligible for parole would be a slap in the face to the families of those who were murdered.

To quote Larry Jegley: This bill "not only dishonors the victims and dishonors their families, but it disrespects the fundamental element of our criminal justice system. Don't disrespect the juries, but more than that, don't disrespect the victims and their loved ones . . . . Murder's a murder. I don't care what impulse there was, what immaturity" was shown by the killer. Or what both justice and mercy may call for after both are given time to ripen into one over time?

But that's what the man said. He doesn't care what impulse there was behind the crime, or the immaturity of the young murderer. As noted earlier, prosecutors are indeed people, too--that is, imperfect.

As for all this dishonor-and-disrespect business, this bill seems to be more about faith, hope and charity than any intent to dishonor a murderer's victims.

Come, let us reason together, even pray and cry together, Mr. Prosecutor. Do justice, forget vengeance. Even the kind disguised as only respect for juries, God bless and strengthen them. Theirs is a task none of us would much want, theirs a decision all of us might want to consider and reconsider not just in the heat of the moment but over the progress of time.

If this bill becomes law, a 16-year-old who murders and is convicted of it at 17 would be middle-aged by the time he would become eligible for parole. Nobody would be getting away with anything, let alone murder. And surely nobody wants to cause any more pain to those already in mourning.

"I want to be very clear," as Greg Leding said, "that no one who supports this bill is in any way indifferent to the victims."

It's just a shame Mr. Leding felt called on to spell that out, but such are these less than subtle times.

The quality of mercy is not strained.

It droppeth as the gentle rain

from heaven

Upon the place beneath.

It is twice blessed:

It blesseth him that gives

and him that takes.

--The Merchant of Venice

Editorial on 02/23/2015

Print Headline: Needed: level heads


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