In the science-fiction movie "Minority Report," based on a story by Philip K. Dick, a future society imprisons people for murders they have not yet committed but would if left at large. In the story, the predictions are made by mutants with special abilities to see future events. Such abilities don't exist in our world, but our justice system sometimes seeks to prevent future crimes by locking up those it deems a threat to public safety.
Thursday's sentencing of a Grants Pass man is such a case. It appears from what the federal judge heard that his decision was justified. But he was sentencing a man who had admitted committing a crime. That gave him the leeway to consider what the man might do if he didn't go to prison.
We don't sentence people to prison for crimes they haven't yet committed, no matter how much we might wish we could. Still, having some indication of an individual's propensity for future crimes can offer a measure of protection to the public — if the person has already committed a crime.
Raphael E. Amoroso, 27, was arrested in October 2011 when he approached a police officer after a football game at Grants Pass High School. He was drunk and had been smoking marijuana. In his car, police found an automatic pistol, 200 rounds of rifle ammunition, binoculars, a camouflage jacket and a novel about a rogue federal agent who shoots up a professional football game. At his home, Amoroso had several vintage military rifles, sniper gear, 2,000 rounds of ammunition and armor-piercing bullets.
When he was a student at Grants Pass High School, Amoroso wrote a letter saying he wanted to "blow away the faculty" with a gun and then "blow away every student I can."
On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Owen Panner said he did not believe Amoroso intended to carry out those threats, but the judge expressed concern about the young man's anger.
Panner said he was concerned by reports from psychologist Michael O'Connell, who worked with Amoroso in recent months. O'Connell testified that Amoroso has little concern for the distress of others and an unrealistic view of his own abilities and the world around him.
The judge's stated concern in this case was that Amoroso receive the treatment he needs to deal with his mental health issues. Sentencing him to federal prison to get that treatment also removes any threat he might pose to the public, at least as long as he is behind bars.
In this case, Amoroso did commit a crime, and the judge acted as much for his benefit as to protect the public. The more difficult cases are those in which individuals with mental health issues don't come to the attention of police in time to get treatment before they commit acts of violence.
Predicting future events is still the stuff of science fiction. Psychologists can evaluate individuals and express opinions about their future behavior — but our system locks people up for what they have already done, not because it knows what they will do in the future.
The dilemma, in this case and others, is trying to get mental health treatment for those who need it before they harm themselves or others — without violating their rights in the process.