MT VOID 09/06/96 (Vol. 15, Number 10)

MT VOID 09/06/96 (Vol. 15, Number 10)

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
Club Notice - 09/06/96 -- Vol. 15, No. 10

Table of Contents

Upcoming Meetings:

Unless otherwise stated, all meetings are in the Middletown cafeteria Wednesdays at noon.

  DATE                    TOPIC

(no meetings scheduled)

Outside events:
The Science Fiction Association of Bergen County meets on the second
Saturday of every month in Upper Saddle River; call 201-933-2724 for
details.  The New Jersey Science Fiction Society meets on the third
Saturday of every month in Belleville; call 201-432-5965 for details.

MT Chair/Librarian:
              Mark Leeper   MT 3E-433  908-957-5619
HO Chair:     John Jetzt    MT 2E-530  908-957-5087
HO Librarian: Nick Sauer    HO 4F-427  908-949-7076
Distinguished Heinlein Apologist:
              Rob Mitchell  MT 2D-536  908-957-6330
Factotum:     Evelyn Leeper MT 3E-433  908-957-2070
Backissues available at
All material copyright by author unless otherwise noted.

URL of the week: A particularly science-fictional Dilbert. [-ecl]


This is one of my serious editorials. There aren't many of them, but they do exist. However, just because I am serious here, it does not mean that I do not intend to get to a science fictional idea eventually. But you will have to wait a while for me to get there. In the July 15, 1996, issue of the NEW YORKER magazine, page 72, Judge Sol Wachtler argues against the current call for mandatory cookbook (my term) sentencing for crimes. He believes that one of the major reasons you have a judge is to examine the mitigating circumstances of a crime and to decide what the punishment should be. He asks the question should a mother who steals powdered milk to feed her child be given the same punishment as a man who steals powdered milk to cut heroin before selling it. He feels not and he feels that you have a judge to realize that former crime should get a light punishment and the latter a heavier sentence.

Immediately I see three things wrong with the judge's argument here. The first and biggest objection is that possessing and/or selling heroin is a crime that carries a penalty and feeding a baby is not. Hence we are unlikely to see the two people getting the same punishment for their actions overall, even if they get the same punishment for theft of the milk. It is not clear to me from this argument that the theft should not be equally punished, but the heroin pusher should get an additional sentence for the possession and sale of heroin. My second objection is that while Judge Wachtler talks about the mitigating circumstances of the crime he omits any reference to the amount of damage that each crime does. It may well be unintentional, but if the mother's stealing the milk causes some serious damage that the heroin pusher's theft does not, that, in my opinion, should be factored into the sentences. Let us say for the sake of argument that the grocer sees the woman's theft and chases after her, right into the path of a speeding car. Suppose the car hits the grocer and kills him. The damage was precipitated by the woman. Her motives for the theft may have been as pure as Jean Valjean's, but she created a situation that led to the grocer's death and I would think that should be factored into the sentence. Judge Wachtler does not suggest that the amount of damage done should be factored into the sentencing process, and I feel this is a serious omission. My third complaint with his example, admittedly a lesser one, is that by bringing the gender of the two offenders into his description he seems to be implying that it is a part of the mitigating circumstances. If it is a man stealing milk for a child and a woman who is the heroin pusher I would hope that the judge would feel exactly the same way about the case. Judge Wachtler chose to describe the two cases in a non-gender-neutral manner and that is frankly a bit irksome.

My feeling, however, is that one of the great advantages of mandatory sentencing is the uniform application of the law. If the law takes out of the hands of the individual judges the specific punishment, it means that the question of whether a specific judge is lenient or strict will no longer affect the fate of the criminal. And regardless of what rights the accused has and has not, every person accused of the same crime should have precisely the same set of rights. If the accused is convicted, the degree of punishment should not be a matter of the "luck of the draw," dependent on which judge was chosen to decide the case.

But there really are two independent factors here. One is the uniformity of the application of the law, which Judge Wachtler does not mention, the other is the degree of complexity and the factors taken into account in the sentencing decision. Judge Wachtler seems to believe that the only way to have a system that takes into account of all the mitigating factors is to give judges complete autonomy in sentencing. It is Judge Wachtler's belief that complex decisions require a great deal of localized autonomy.

That may have been the case at one time, but we are reaching a higher level of technology. We are approaching a time when the most complex decisions cannot be entrusted to individual autonomy. For years there have existed artificial intelligence programs that diagnose disease. Diagnosing disease is a fairly complex decision process. Yet there exist computer programs that do a good job of asking the right questions and from the answers diagnose disease with a fairly respectable reliability. And the process is executed the same way from Seattle to Miami. How different is the complexity of the process diagnosing illness and that of determining sentences? My guess is that they must be of about the same order of complexity. If that is the case we could have a national AI program that would suggest sentences for convicted criminals. It would take a while to debug, as AI programs inevitably do. At least initially it would be only advisory and if it gave an absurd sentence, it could have additional questions programmed into it to refine the decision tree. Eventually it could be the basis of a uniform national sentencing structure. I hasten to add I am not saying the program would determine guilt or innocence. It would only assign reasonable sentences to the set of circumstances of a crime. We may live to see that done and it would be a fairer way of determining sentences that what we currently have. And if it would be fairer, we have a responsibility to at least reach that level of equity, if not this way at least by some other way that is as good. [-mrl]

Hugo Awards

The 1996 Hugo winners are: