How soft on crime have we become?

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 11, 2010

Has our society become too soft on crime, too forgiving of people who insist on selfishly doing bad things?

Each week this newspaper publishes arrest records and court conclusions.

Countless times as I read through the names, charges, fines and sentences I find myself baffled.

“Suspended sentence?”

“Just a fine?”

Obviously, each criminal case is unique and perhaps there’s a justifiable cause for a lessened sentence in each case that seems questionable to me.

For many law-abiding citizens, the process is baffling.

Our parents reared us with the knowledge that misbehavior had consequences.

If you did something wrong, you may have received a warning the first time, but repeatedly ignoring the rules meant pain.

That pain for me was often a spanking when I was little.

No sympathy for me, please. I deserved every whipping I received — and probably dozens more for misbehavior that went unnoticed.

Later the “pain” came in the form of taking things away that were of value — cars, TV time, free time, etc.

Those early lessons have carried on into the adult belief that if you break the law you’ll go to jail.

And maybe that’s why law-abiding citizens sometimes feel the “system” is broken in that what we’ve been told — and believed — for decades isn’t true.

Crime may not pay, as the cliché goes, but it may not cost the criminal much either.

We’re becoming a society content with the knowledge that “no” doesn’t mean no unless you get caught.

And the consequences for getting caught are generally negotiable.

Shoplifting? You can probably just go to court, pay a fine and maybe spend a day in jail.

Assault on someone? You can probably just pay a small fine and behave for a year.

It’s a fact of human nature that we’ll all try to get away with as much as possible.

And little white lies produced as a child, often meant to cover one’s own rear, can lead to big lies if parents — and the rest of society — don’t instill a sense of right and wrong for our youth.

A good case in point is the problem of illegal dumping.

How is it that we wind up with members of the community who will dump their trash on someone else’s property?

Not only do these people disrespect the privacy of others but also, to add insult to injury, they do so by depositing their trash.

Worse is the rather weak punishment they face if they get caught. Apparently throwing the book at these criminals means a potential fine of $500.

Somehow that doesn’t seem enough.

Sure, $500 is a good bit of money, but apparently it is not a big enough threat to scare people from continuing to dump trash, steal things and hurt others.

Critics will say we need to focus on rehabilitation efforts rather than simply ratcheting up the consequences.

Both are likely required in some cases if we seek to actually change the course of society.

But to quickly curb crime in the short run, increasing the consequences and locking up more criminals — and for longer periods of time — may be the only way out.

Doing that shouldn’t be a difficult process, but it will require that citizens push to change the laws required and have the attitude that enough is enough.

Kevin Cooper is publisher of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3539 or