“He’s suffered enough” is one of the more popular and effective rationalizations, usually put into use in defense of white collar criminals and the likes of Roman Polanski, wealthy or once-respectable criminals for whom remorse and humiliation are deemed to be as devastating as incarceration. Yet it is still a rationalization—a deceptive representation of the truth—and shows a misunderstanding of what official punishment needs to accomplish.
A sad drama has played out in a Montgomery County Maryland court, where twenty-year old Kevin Coffay was sentenced to twenty years in prison for fleeing the scene of a May auto accident that he had caused by being drunk behind the wheel, as Spencer Datt, 18; John Hoover, 20; and Haeley McGuire, 18, remained in the wreck after Coffay fled. All three died.
Coffay was stunned by the sentence, and news reports say that the case has torn the community apart, with the families of the victims seeking retribution, and supporters of Coffay pleading for compassion and mercy. Their argument, as it always is in such tragedies, is that “he’s suffered enough”. This misses the point of the trial, the sentence, and the societal ritual that such events demand. The objective is not to make Coffay suffer. Nobody denies that he is remorseful and guilt-ridden; he knew all the victims personally, and understands the awful results of what he has done. Society, however, must constantly establish and reinforce its ethical boundaries, make it apparent to all the conduct it regards as intolerable and wrong, and signal to others that they must avoid engaging in similar conduct, and can rely on harsh consequences if they do not.
County prosecutors told the court that Coffay made a “cowardly choice” demonstrating a “callous attitude.” “It is horrible to simply abandon your friends as they are dying for no other reason than to try to avoid the consequences for your actions,” they argued. Yes, it is. The County cannot announce to the community just how horrible by letting Keven Coffay off with just an 18 months sentence, as his lawyers suggested. That might have been more than enough to teach Coffay his lesson, but it is not nearly enough to show society’s opposition to the despicable values his actions displayed. He chose to operate a motor vehicle while seriously impaired by alcohol. Knowing he was intoxicated, he operated his vehicle at a reckless speed. Because of his recklessness, he caused a fatal accident, and rather than stay on the scene to render assistance and accept responsibility for his conduct, he ran away.
There is only one way for the community to effectively and unambiguously condemn this anti-social conduct, and that is to condemn the young man who engaged in it— to punish him in proportion to the enormity of his unethical actions. For him to suffer isn’t enough, nor is it the primary objective. The objective is to make a statement that cannot be misinterpreted now or years from now, that citizens have certain duties to each other, and when those duties are grievously breached, society will show its disapproval proportionally—no matter how much the wrongdoer may have suffered.