During this honeymoon period, it would be unseemly to try to tell President Reagan how to perform the duties of his office. So we will put off the writing of that kind of column for a day or two, or until the cartoonists begin attacking Reagan, whichever shall come first.
Instead of being the first to cast a stone at Reagan, we shall use today's space to give judges and lawyers the benefit of our advice.
From time to time, a defendant is found guilty of such a heinous crime that he is sentenced to what appears to be crushing punishment, perhaps 99 years in prison, or even life. The outraged public is mollified by these seemingly harsh sentences from a judicial system that is generally perceived to be soft on criminals.
When a malefactor is sentenced to not one but two 99-year terms, or two life terms, I sometimes make a cynical comment on the order of, "Gee, that could keep him locked up for as long as 10 years."
When I write things of this kind, several lawyers usually inform me that I have made a mistake. They explain the parole system and tell me that the prisoner will have to serve (for example) "at least 33 years."
Sometimes I answer these letters, but sometimes I'm tempted to just send the lawyer a current news clipping about a man who was sentenced to two life terms but is out on the street again after a few years. There is never a problem about finding an appropriate news clipping, for these stories appear with regularity.
If you would like to check up on me, you might keep an eye on the case of Warren A. Young, identified in a recent news account as a 22-year-old who lived at 33 K St. NW. Young was convicted of one count of rape, also four counts of rape while armed, and for good measure he was found guilty of four other crimes that carry maximum terms of life in prison.
Judge Fred B. Ugast ordered that Young serve nine consecutive life sentences plus 57 additional years, which you will have to admit is quite impressive. To a layman, a "life" sentence is a sentence that will keep a criminal in prison as long as he lives.
To you and me, it would be incongruous to suggest that after a man had spent the remainder of his life in prison, and had died in prison, his corpse would be required to begin serving another life sentence. And then seven more.
However, to judges and lawyers there is nothing incongruous about nine consecutive life sentences because judges and lawyers are characters from Alice in Wonderland. To them, words mean whatever they want them to mean. In this case "life" means until Judge Ugast has a chance "to reconsider the terms after an evaluation of Young is made by prison officials."
In other words, the big print addeth years to a sentence but the small print taketh away even more years. The big print sayeth, "Forever plus eight more forevers plus 57 years" (whatever that means, if anything), but the small print sayeth, "I had my fingers crossed when I sentenced him, so it doesn't count."
The long and short of it is that sentences are often so drastically reduced as to bring to mind the Latin phrase, "Reductio ad absurdum."
Although it is clear that Warren Young is not a cat and does not have nine lives to lose, the impression is created by the court that he is being sentenced to serve nine lifetimes.
It is safe to bet that he will not serve for even one lifetime.
I do not understand why our judicial system tolerates such sentencing practices. I do not understand how we can respect such judicial double talk.
However, I do know that this subject has long troubled many jurists and lawyers, and that remedial action should have been undertaken long ago.
Chief Justice Warren Burger is among those who have shown concern, and he is certainly in the best position to lead his brethen to agreement on a more sensible system of sentencing. I hope that this will be the year he succeeds on this reform and on others he has advocated.
It took a long time, but we finally got rid of the $25-or-30-days sentence that put a value of 83 cents on a day of a man's life. If we persist in our campaign for reform, you may even live long enough to see the establishment of a more sensible system of sentencing, pardon and parole in this country. I doubt that people my age will be around that long.