Criminal sentencing: When should judges stop judging?

On Jan. 20 and 21 the Mail Tribune reported that Jackson County Circuit Judge Tim Barnack imposed 21 life sentences without parole on Richard Lee Taylor, found guilty of 21 counts of child sexual abuse. I do not know the facts of the case and I do not question Judge Barnack's sentence. Society may need to be protected from certain convicted felons and, for the safety of the community, some of them may need to be in prison for the rest of their lives.

What I question are the comments that Barnack made from the bench while sentencing Taylor. I am wondering when a judge should stop judging and, when sentencing, what is a judge's appropriate role on the bench?

It seems to me there are two aspects to sentencing that our judges need to consider. The first is to protect society from further harm from an individual who may continue to damage others if set free. The second, in our current judicial system, is to mete out an appropriate "punishment" for the convicted that we hope will act as a deterrent to him and to others.

Though I would prefer that we move toward a restorative justice system (which might in some cases include prison for life), I accept at this time that "punishment" is the rule. So the two considerations in sentencing right now are to protect us and to punish and deter the convicted.

During Taylor's sentencing, Barnack told Taylor he was "a bad person," that he "will rot in prison," that he did "not belong outside a prison cell," that he thinks Taylor has no soul and that community members would wonder why he wasn't hanging from a tree.

In making these comments, I am wondering if Barnack was moving beyond his authority and outside his area of expertise. While it is a judge's role to make an appropriate decision about an individual's wrongful behavior and its impact on the community, is it a judge's role to decide who is good and who is bad — in their essence as a human being? Is it a judge's role to decide whether the person before him has a soul or not — or even ponder that out loud? Maybe Taylor won't rot in prison. Maybe he will grow spiritually in prison as he serves his life sentence. It has happened before.

Is it a judge's role to make public moral judgments about the individual before him and ask them whether or not they want to save their soul? When they do, are judges moving into an arena where priests, ministers, pastors, imams, rabbis and other ministers of religion are more qualified to speak?

And is it a judge's role to speak for other members of the community? Can he assume that we all belong to a hang-you-from-a-tree community? (Count me out on that one, Judge.)

It was reported that Taylor showed no remorse and that he stated he had "nothing to say." I do not know why Taylor did not speak up or apologize. Maybe he did not have the skills, maybe he was terrified or maybe he really was not remorseful.

The crimes Taylor committed are horrific. I understand that the video shown to the jurors was very difficult for them to watch and that the evidence included thousands of disturbing child pornography images.

Why did Taylor commit these crimes? We don't really know. Whatever the reason, it is definitely harmful behavior that needs to be immediately stopped. We do know though, that many sexual abusers were themselves abused as children. It is quite possible that this predator was once prey. Therefore, though it may be difficult, should we not remember that, remorseful or not, Taylor is part of the race we call human — even as we agree that he should spend his whole life in prison?

Tim Barnack is one of our newest elected judges (November 2008) so we can appreciate that he may still be fine-tuning his skills on the bench. I wonder if judges who make statements from the bench such as those discussed here need to hone their skills in distinguishing between their role of protecting us (as well as meting out appropriate deterrent punishments) and making moral judgments on our behalf.

I wonder at what point judges should stop judging, and I wonder which of us, in that courtroom and beyond, have yet to find our souls.

Mary Miller has spent more than 27 years as a mediator and facilitator in the dispute resolution field and has worked closely with the courts and community justice system. She is on a learning curve in fine-tuning the balancing act of being impartial as required by her profession, speaking out as a Jackson County citizen and living her life in compassion for all her fellow humans — judges and convicted felons included.

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