The terms of the plea agreements are extremely onerous, considering the acts were consensual and there was no age discrepancy between the participants. What the teens have agreed to sounds not too different than what’s routinely handed to other sex offenders — except that these teens molested no children, possessed no child porn and performed no acts of sexual violence. Comega Copening, the other participant in this heinous two-person sexting ring will be treated as a criminal not worthy of his own phone for the next 365 days.
Of course, probation, 30 hours of community service and a prohibition against having a cellphone for a year beats prison for an offense that met the elements of a poorly-drafted law, and caused no harm to anyone, except themselves if one accepts the premise of Cumberland County Sheriff’s Sgt. Sean Swain.
“We don’t know where these pictures are going to go. We’re more or less saving the kids from themselves because they’re not seeing what’s going to come down the road.”
Very kind of Sgt. Swain, who no doubt figured a strongly-worded lecture on the evils of sexting wasn’t nearly as good as criminal conviction that would taint the teens for life. But there’s an additional term of the sentence that struck a similarly paternal chord:
[One] year of probation. During that year… Copening must stay in school, take a class on making good decisions, complete 30 hours of community service, not use or possess alcohol or illegal drugs, not possess a cellphone and must submit to warrantless searches.
Of the terms imposed, there is one that is so foreign to anything that belongs in the legal system as to be shocking. And yet, it’s likely no one caught it.
…take a class on making good decisions
Good decisions. What, pray tell, does this mean? Does Judge Smith have life-lessons in mind, like “never eat anything bigger than your head”? Perhaps she intended to teach the young man never to piss into the wind? No, that doesn’t seem likely.
Judges have long imputed to themselves the mad ability to be moral arbiters of society. Nobody elects or appoints them as such. They’re supposed to get a robe to do law-ish stuff, rather than wear the mantle of society’s conscience. Under the most charitable view, nobody thinks judges have such refined sensibilities that they get to impose their notions of goodness on others.
That said, there is apparently a class in making good decisions to be had in Fayetteville. Who teaches it? Who creates the curriculum? Who decides what’s good and what’s not? And what business does the government have in imposing this on anyone?
Do I think sexting is a “good decision”? No. It’s friggin’ idiotic on many levels. I think the same of tattoos, or any permanent bodily mutilation. On the other hand, I think it’s a good decision to make sure your shoes are polished, to not respond to “thank you” with “no problem,” and to never wear black sneakers to court.
And that’s the problem; these are things that I think are good decisions. Who gives a damn what I think? Nobody made me the arbiter of other people’s personal decision-making. Your choices are yours, and whether they are the same as mine or opposite doesn’t make them inherently good or bad. They’re just different. In America, we are allowed to make whatever decisions we want, provided they violate no law.
And yet, Judge Smith has ordered, meaning that she has used the fiat of the state, to require a young man to endure official re-education as to decisions that the state thinks are good. Like vote for the candidate of a particular party. Like respect the police and do exactly as they command, no matter what. Like not sext.
Good and bad are subjective, relative, personal. The state has no business telling people what someone, somewhere, thinks is a good decision and what’s not. And the judge has no business imposing the requirement that a person attend a class to be taught the state’s version of good decisions as part of a sentence.
While deterrence and rehabilitation are legitimate purposes of a sentence, these are satisfied by the requirement that the defendant commit no additional crimes and stay in school. You know, the school where he learns reading, writing, ‘rithmetic? Not the school where he learns good decisions.
No doubt, someone can easily smack me down with the challenge, “so what’s wrong with good decisions?” You tell me. What’s wrong with the state using its power to impose its version of good decisions on anyone, no less an impressionable youth. You tell me what distinguishes good from bad decisions. You tell me what business the state has in deciding which decisions are good and which are not.
And I will tell you that nothing is less American, less meaningful, than the state’s idea of good decisions. We are entitled to make our own decisions, to think our own thoughts, for better or worse, provided we do not violate the law. And no judge has the authority to order otherwise.