Whose “Good Decisions”?

The saga of two teens charged with possession of child porn for their own consensual possession of naked images of themselves and each other has ended in the usual manner, guilty pleas.

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:

Judge April Smith, tell him what he’s won!

[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.

29 thoughts on “Whose “Good Decisions”?

  1. Dave

    I am trying now to decide if it would be a good decision to comment on this post. Maybe I should sign up for that class first.

  2. Piedmont

    Is the answer to what business the judge has to imposing this sentence, “Because everyone agreed to it?”

    Okay, so there are two main issues:
    1) Whether these teenagers should be criminally liable for sexting
    2) If they should be criminally liable, what their punishment(s) should be

    It seems to me that the answer to 1) is probably “no.” That said, the North Carolina court having decided otherwise, we move on to the penalty phase. Here, the two teens apparently consented to an agreement that got them a dismissal of one charge and a deferral-then-dismissal of the other, in exchange for various things, including the “good decisions” class. So, regardless of any other enabling statutes, the judge gets to impose that condition because the parties have contracted to it.

    Out of curiosity, do you have the same problem with the state using its version of alcohol education, parenting, drug counseling, free association (through No Contact provisions), or shoplifting prevention?

    1. SHG Post author

      A wee bit disingenuous (as in total bullshit). I’m not sufficiently knowledgeable about how pleas are done in Fayetteville, but in some courts, the defendant knows only of the major sentence component, probation, and the others are piled on without his knowledge before the plea is taken. In others, it’s all spelled out, whether in writing or orally. And in others, the defendant knows of the charge to which he pleas, but the sentence remains in the judge’s discretion.

      Regardless, let’s cut the crap about him “agreeing to it.” And if he didn’t agree to it, then he doesn’t get the plea and his option is go to trial and carry the full trial tax. Nothing coercive there.

      But none of this bears upon the question of the judge’s authority to impose this condition, regardless of whether it was known or (coercively) agreed to.

      As for your curiosity, save it. Things your curious about really aren’t high on my agenda, particularly after such a bullshit attempt to make people stupider in your comment.

        1. SHG Post author

          You’re right, and I apologize to Piedmont for attributing the intelligence to him of knowing his comment was disingenuous bullshit when it may have just been stupid. Sorry about that.

          1. Beth

            An adage I take to heart: Never attribute to malice what stupidity can explain.

            BTW, thanks. I enjoy your writing and, in addition, I enjoy reading your rants about people wasting your time with their pointless comments.

  3. losingtrader

    Everyone I know thinks this conviction is stupid.
    That being said, couldn’t they have been charged federally, in which case you’d have
    a much longer series of posts and they’d be subject to mandatory sentences?

  4. Keith

    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.

    You should know better.

      1. Keith

        And yet, it’s likely no one caught it

        Not sure who the “no one” is that you’re referring to, but I figured it was your readers (sine we are here, after all). That “reeducation” caught my eye immediately and I’m not sure how anyone that has read your blog for even a little bit wouldn’t have the same reaction.

          1. Rendall

            Keith thinks by “It’s likely no one caught it” you refer to your audience. I thought so too, at first.

  5. Jeffrey L. Boyer

    This class prescription resulted from a young man engaging in an harmless act, yet committing terrible atrocity according to legal statute. Is it too wildly optimistic to think an objective arbiter of legal justice would assign an objective course covering all the federal and state legal codes so that this young man will be better equipped to know whether his future decisions run counter to the thousands of laws? Would take far more than a year to grasp it all, but hey, gotta start somewhere.

    Maybe they could provide this law review/decision-making course for everyone so we all know what we’re getting ourselves into each day we step out the door…or pick up our smart phone to snap a pic.

  6. LTMG

    A class on making good decisions! Hooray! I checked. My local community college has a class called “Making Good Decisions”. Unfortunately, the waiting list stretches to 2021. Why? All of the available sections are taken up by law enforcement officers from around the country. I might have to sue in order to even get a seat in 2021.

    Why doesn’t the community college schedule more sections? Well, Diogenes is still looking for an honest man to be the new instructor. According to the course listing, somebody named D. Trump is the instructor. I’ve tried contacting him to get a syllabus, but it seems he’s busy.

  7. Stephan R. Illa

    Alas, the odious practice of ordering offenders to attend indoctrination courses is a common practice in my jurisdiction. Federal judges here often include a provision in the judgment and sentence requiring that the defendant complete “Moral Reconation Therapy™” while on supervised release. The MRT program purports to “foster moral development” in clients, according to its www site [no, I won’t give you the satisfaction of including a hyperlink that you can strike]. The company states: “The program is designed to alter how clients think and make judgments about what is right and wrong.” The goal is “to move clients from hedonistic (pleasure vs. pain) reasoning levels to levels where concern for social rules and others becomes important.”

    Failing to complete this course in ideological rehabilitation is a supervised release violation and can be punished by imprisonment.

    “What are you in for?” said Winston.
    “Thoughtcrime!” said Parsons, almost blubbering.
    * G.Orwell, 1984, Part III, ch. 1.

    1. SHG Post author

      From what I know about it, the word “moral” is misleading; it’s a cognitive behavioral therapy to teach that actions have consequences. But then, that’s about all I know of it.

  8. John Barleycorn

    I wonder if a three day field trip to the Louvre could cure April and Sean if it was followed up with some inpatient care for a month or so?

  9. bill

    You seem to be objecting to the re-education camp function justice asserts. Start with mandatory alcohol re-hab, please- And drug re-hab.

Comments are closed.