Chante Mallard - A Commentary
By Albert Richard, Jr., KERA 90.1 commentator
Dallas, TX – Chante Mallard has been mistreated by the criminal justice process. She has been destroyed in an orderly and legal manner to no good purpose. A crime that deserved a strong and righteous response has instead been made more grotesque by an obscene sentence of fifty years. Fifty years is a long time for her, her loved ones, the victim's family, and the taxpayers to relive a night of infamy that could have been put behind us as an unfortunate tragedy that we got through and somehow survived.
Chante does not have only herself to blame for the agony she is starting to endure. She has us. We took an insignificant person and transformed her into a notorious criminal. We made her an example of how irresponsible persons will be treated.
What makes Ms. Mallard so deserving of our legal wrath? Does her anti-social mind make her a serious ongoing threat to our sense of safety? Her prior criminality appears to have consisted only of smoking pot, driving under the influence, and wasting her potential. She could have lived better, like most of us, but instead she chose to be ordinary, and, given her tendency toward irresponsibility, she proved weak in a moral crisis. She did not rise to the moment, and she does need to pay for that. But what is the price to be paid? How accountable should she be?
Americans are on an accountability binge. Two million inmates in prison and millions more in jail, on probation and parole, all to prove that people will be held accountable. This may seem to be an appealing strategy, but we don't really encourage accountability in our pursuit of justice. We punish it. Ms. Mallard's incentive to help Mr. Biggs out of her windshield had to have been sobered by the realization that only very bad punishment lay ahead, especially given her drinking and drugging. Intoxication is a poor excuse for behavior, but we should at least be able to relate to her fear.
Our criminal justice system keeps score by the numbers. The more years in prison a person gets, the more justice we have accomplished. Many people in prison must mean that many have been taught a lesson. Ms. Mallard, like many others with long sentences, is not likely to profit from this moral enterprise, because she will be too old, too sick or too dead to have an opportunity to do better. Our Christian has culture tends to leave redemption out of the criminal justice mix.
The French philosopher Albert Camus said, "I love justice, but I love my mother better." The relentless pursuit of justice can breed excessive and misguided reactions. The bare facts of this case are offensive, but the person behind them is only human, not evil. The moral lesson we want to teach by punishing is not wrong, but it needs the rest of the story, which is that we expect people to do better once its over.
This death sentence will not make the next reckless driver stop and render aid, and it won't help the victim's loved ones. Chante should have been given a sentence that hurt, that she could survive so a new life could be possible to help to redeem all the damage that has been done.
We should, in our determination to right a wrong by punishing so harshly, consider carefully the words of Frederick Douglas, the former slave and orator, who wrote, "No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck."
Restraint would make criminal justice a stronger and more effective institution, not a weaker one.
Albert Richard has worked for adult and juvenile justice agencies in Texas for more than 30-years and he teaches university level courses in criminal justice.