« Sentencing justice through collateral consequences? | Main | Some (final?) thoughts on politics, prosecution and punishment »

March 20, 2008

Should dying child justify a federal sentencing break?

Dad A helpful reader sent me this remarkable local story that has to make every sentencing theorist (not to mention ever federal prison official) think hard about modern notions of justice and mercy:

The story of a 10-year-old Lincoln girl who is dying of brain cancer's one dying wish spurred a lot of e-mail to KETV NewsWatch 7. Jayci Yaeger wants her father to be at her bedside, but that isn't likely to happen since Jason Yaeger is in a federal prison in Yankton, S.D.

Vonda Yaeger is pleading with the warden for compassion to grant her daughter's wish. "She wants her dad. She goes to her room crying because she wants her dad," Yaeger said.

Jason Yaeger was convicted of methamphetamine charges nearly five years ago and is scheduled to be released next year. "We've never asked them to release him early. Never asked them to change anything. We've asked them to just give him some time to be here," Vonda Yaeger said.

Several KETV NewsWatch 7 viewers said they've e-mailed the warden themselves after reading the story. Kevin Burton said he e-mailed a link of KETV's story to the warden, along with a note that said in part: "I feel heartbroken for this little girl. It sounds like a drug charge, and not a more serious crime. As a father of a young daughter myself, I hope that there is more to this story. I would hope in cases such as this some compassion can be shown and reasonable accommodations taken that safeguard the public, honor the judiciary, but still let this little girl see her father while she is still living."....

Another viewer suggested starting a nationwide petition to get Jason Yaeger to his daughter before she dies.

Jayci Yaeger has been allowed three escorted visits with her father, but each trip lasts only a couple of hours and costs the family hundreds of dollars. Requests for longer furloughs have been denied. "They say it doesn't constitute an extraordinary circumstance," Vonda Yaeger said.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons Web site states its policy -- that furloughs can be allowed for a family crisis and that decision is left to the warden. "We've asked them numerous times, 'What is an extraordinary circumstance?'" said Vonda Yaeger. "They danced around it. They don't give you a direct answer."

Jayci still gets calls when her father can manage. "He talks to her. We put the phone to her ear and she cries," Vonda Yaeger said. She said there have been several times she didn't think Jayci would make it through the night, but she somehow keeps fighting. "I feel she's hanging on for her dad," Vonda Yaeger said. The family said that what makes the situation even more difficult is that Jason Yaeger is scheduled to be transferred to a half-way house in Council Bluffs, Iowa, in August. That would make it possible to visit Jayci, but her mother said it will probably be too late.

March 20, 2008 at 05:06 PM | Permalink

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
http://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d83451574769e200e5513cc6198833

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Should dying child justify a federal sentencing break?:

» Great Stuff Elsewhere from Simple Justice
Some days, there's just too much good stuff out there for one blawg to handle. [Read More]

Tracked on Mar 21, 2008 9:53:01 AM

Comments

There are tens of thousands of stories like this. Wardens have great power, though most seldom if ever exercise it. They can furlough and also set security levels which can greatly enhance a non-violent inmate's quality of life.

Posted by: beth curtis | Mar 20, 2008 8:05:07 PM

I am traveling and I saw the story on the Whichita Falls TX station and they did not interview the warden or the father of the girl. In that respect the story was one-sided but on the other hand no effort was made to move the father closer to home. We have federal inmates in Iowa prisons and in Iowa jails so that is a realistic option.

I have no idea if a furlough is a realistic option on the basis of the information (other than he is qualified for work release) given in the TV report.

Posted by: John Neff | Mar 20, 2008 8:41:38 PM

Doug you have to step in here and help them. Someone to to ask the worst President in the history of this country to step in and commute.

Our system is the worst no doubt about it. The system is broken and no one has the guts to fix it

Posted by: | Mar 20, 2008 10:04:25 PM

This is sad, being a former federal prison camp inmate, I saw a lot of children cry during the end of visitation as they said buy to their dads.

There are options and things could be done but the cold hearts of some wardens and prison administrators don't care because they have not gone thru it themselves.

Dear God, Forgive them.

Posted by: Rickey Brunet | Mar 21, 2008 12:32:59 AM

unfortunately we live in a blame game country. No one is willing to do anything that would be considered morally justified because if the warden gives this inmate some slack or grant him usually unsecure access to his daughter in some fashion and something bad happens, the whole state will be wanting to lynch the warden or the governor. It could be a career ending event. Most people wont sacrifice themselves or their lives to do something that is considered compassion.

Everyone in this control pleads for compassion and understanding, as long as its not themselves or their love ones that got hurt.

Oh yeah, add the label 'sex crime' to anything and all sense of morality, compassion, and empathy go right out the window.

Posted by: Mark | Mar 21, 2008 3:46:06 AM

I don't think calling someone you wish to curry favor with the "worst president in history" will get you too far.

Posted by: S.cotus | Mar 21, 2008 8:15:28 AM

I'm afraid this story is just a isolated symptom of the misguided failure to embrace a broader view of justice. In a similar vein, a Houston prosecutor recently announced he doesn't "owe anything to a defendant’s family." This poor gal is just one, extremely heart wrenching example among many of why that callous attitude thwarts true justice.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Mar 21, 2008 8:21:16 AM

I'm afraid this story is just a isolated symptom of the misguided failure to embrace a broader view of justice. In a similar vein, a Houston prosecutor recently announced he doesn't "owe anything to a defendant’s family." This poor gal is just one, extremely heart wrenching example among many of why that callous attitude thwarts true justice

Grits, your comments are usually insightful, but this is just an epithet. What, exactly, is a "misguided failure to embrace a broader view of justice"?

Getting caught committing a crime carries consequences, which Jason Yaeger knew when he decided to get involved with meth. He isn't the first inmate to leave a family behind on the outside, and it's not as if time stops for everyone else who's been incarcerated. One of the consequences of going to prison is that there's a chance you'll miss some important things on the outside. Another consequence is that it becomes much more difficult to provide emotional and financial support for your family. It's not as if Yaeger didn't know this.

On the other hand, if everything in the story's true, and there's nothing relevant left out, then I do think that this guy should get some help from the warden. As beth curtis says, the problem here seems to be with the warden. One of the reasons we give wardens discretion over these things is so that they can deal with egregious circumstances like these and keep bright line rules from falling unduly harshly on some people. The warden's the closest official to the reality on the ground and should be able to use some judgment if s/he's up to the task. Unfortunately, the warden sounds like a typical bureaucrat who's content to parrot "not an extraordinary circumstance" instead of doing his/her job. That's the problem here, as far as I can tell from the news story.

Posted by: | Mar 21, 2008 9:21:21 AM

Isn’t it assumed that when we lock people away for a long period of time that others will be deprived of their presence? And if this is true, then there is no reason to give this guy any relief. After all, he did do something with meth, and meth probably hurts some children somewhere. People in favor of justice should be writing the warden and demand that he not be soft on crime, and make sure this person is kept where he is as long as possible in the name of justice.

Posted by: S.cotus | Mar 21, 2008 10:18:44 AM

"Getting caught committing a crime carries conseuences, which Jason Yaeger knew when he decided to get involved with meth."

This is just like the picture painted in economics classes I took years ago--that of the objective, computer-like consumer calculating which choices best serve his/her interests. If he isn't financially successful (or is homeless or hungry) it's because he chose for it to be that way. Looking at drug addiction as a "choice" in which all possible consequences are weighed and rational decisions made is equally absurd. So drug addicts get up one morning and say, "I believe today I will become a drug addict. I have carefully assessed all the possible consequences, and the benefits appear to outweigh the risks." Just like the judges and prosecutors who get picked up for DUI's made an objective, rational choice to become alcoholics. It couldn't possibly be because you guys want to blot out that twinge of guilt over what happens to defendants' families.

Posted by: disillusioned layman | Mar 21, 2008 10:39:20 AM

Layman, It is perfectly legal to be an alcoholic. However, even an alcoholic does make a decision to get into the driver’s seat and start driving while drunk.

Economics, as a discipline, generally assumes that people behave “rationally.” However, economics can also tinker with the assumptions about how rational people act. Other disciplines have other assumptions. This is why we call them disciplines.

Posted by: S.cotus | Mar 21, 2008 10:51:50 AM

disillusioned, I see no mention in the article of whether the charges were for using, dealing, possession, or otherwise. If you have details, please share.

As for the rest of your comment, there are several differences between DUI, alcoholism, poverty, and methamphetamine. I don't have time to go into all of them, but I'm sorry that you didn't understand your economics class. I understand that drug addictions get beyond the control of the addicts at some point and that treatment makes more sense than punishment.

S. cotus, the first sentence of your comment is correct, but the rest doesn't follow. The effect on a defendant's family is a collateral consequence, not an intentional one. Part of the point is to isolate the defendant from society. A sometimes but unfortunate consequence is that sometimes part of society would prefer not to be isolated from the defendant.

This is a sad story, and I hope that the guy catches a break. That said, there's a tone in some of the writing about this that sounds as if many people never knew that prisoners sometimes have families who would benefit from having the prisoner around.

Posted by: | Mar 21, 2008 11:07:33 AM

I think that there is a growing assumption that possibly we are egregiously and excessively prosecuting and sentencing individuals for non-violent life style issues. There are husbands, wives, parents as well as children who miss and need these inmates on a daily basis.

It has not always been thus and with some luck the worm will turn, but in the mean time many families no longer feel connected to the present system of justice.

Posted by: beth curtis | Mar 21, 2008 11:07:59 AM

referring to the 10:18 S. cotus comment, not the 10:51 one.

Posted by: 11:07 | Mar 21, 2008 11:08:49 AM

"make sure this person is kept where he is as long as possible in the name of justice."

Have we forgotten that justice includes not only legal principles but also equitable considerations. Sure the guy committed a crime and he should be punished. What is wrong with giving him a furlough? He still has to do all of his time. Think how bad it is for the offender, after having been acclimated to being out, to have to return to prison to finish his time once his kid dies.

Posted by: ky | Mar 21, 2008 11:14:23 AM

To 9:21, my point is that incarceration has collateral consequences that negatively impacct others besides the defendant. He knew the potential consequences of his actions, but how is his child responsible?

This example makes the point even more dreadfully because of the immediacy of the daughter's plight, but in general, as I argued in the link provided, prosecutors and law enforcers - not to mention lawmakers and government generally - pin all responsibility for collateral consequences on the offender. That's fine, if it allows them to sleep at night, but in the big picture, for a LOT of kids, at this point, mass incarceration has harmed them in direct and significant ways. If the only person who is "responsible" is locked up in a cage, who will help them?

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Mar 21, 2008 11:29:21 AM

I do not believe that effects on other people is a “collateral” consequences within the legal meaning of the word. When a person is sentenced, everyone knows that he will be isolated from his family for the term of his sentence. There is no more direct consequence than that. This isolation extends to 1) lack of unsupervised contact with family; and 2) lack of ability to be with the family.

“I think that there is a growing assumption that possibly we are egregiously and excessively prosecuting and sentencing individuals for non-violent life style issues.”

This doesn’t make sentence. An assumption can’t be conditional or a “possibility.”

KY, “Have we forgotten that justice includes not only legal principles but also equitable considerations.” Yes and no. As far as I know, one cannot raise 1) laches; 2) unjust enrichment; or 3) unclean hands at sentencing. (Though these things may raise due process issues that go to whether a defendant can be found guilty.) In general, political arguments about “how bad it is for the offender” fail because people don’t like offenders.

Posted by: S.cotus | Mar 21, 2008 11:40:58 AM

Many of you are missing the point, entirely. This story isn't about whether the father's punishment justly deprives him of being at his daughter's side when she is dying. He's not the one who requires compassion right now. She is.

The bottom line is that there is a 10-year old who is losing her life, and all she wants right now is to have her father by her side. That should be simple enough for some of you rationalists to figure out, with or without a functioning heart.

There has not been any request by the father or mother to suspend his sentence, to gain early release, or to in any way diminish his sentencing. I assume that once his daughter has passed away, he will return to prison, and resume his sentencing. I'm sure if he were given the chance to be with his daughter for two weeks, he'd gladly accept an additional two months on his sentence.

This is simple. The warden has forgotten where his true responsibilities lie: he needs to protect the public, of course; but he also needs to function, every day, as a member of society. No doubt his weekly church attendance should be able to guide him back to a world where compassion and mercy are cornerstones of personal guidance.

Posted by: Rob | Mar 21, 2008 11:43:21 AM

If not a "collateral consequence," then, S.cotus, then what economists call "externalities."

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Mar 21, 2008 11:45:41 AM

When anyone goes to jail, other people are impacted.

Hell, I am pretty sure everyone's life would be a lot better if we didn’t fight the war on drugs, or we didn’t stop minorities on flimsy pretexts.

But we are, and we do. We have made our choice. Possession and trafficking in drugs is a serious crime and when someone is sent to jail is cause for celebration. Maybe Congress might see things differently.

Posted by: S.cotus | Mar 21, 2008 12:01:11 PM

Perhaps, and it's probably impolitic to point this out, the father here could take some responsibility for this situation. He chose to make and sell meth, a drug that ruins lives and families. And now he's making it so that his child cannot see him in the last months of her life. The responsibility is his, not that of the meanie warden.

Is that a harsh assessment? Yes. And I don't know what I would do if I were the warden.

Posted by: federalist | Mar 21, 2008 12:33:37 PM

Federalists' comments are exactly the type I was describing at 11:29, the idea that all decisions of the legal and justice system are somehow caused by the defendant, and no one but him bears any responsibility for anything. This mentality can justify monstrous harms with a shrug, as long as they have somebody else to blame.

Asking offenders to take responsibility for their actions is disingenuous when society won't take responsibility for the harm it inflicts on innocent third parties, particularly children.

And fwiw, I'm pretty sure I know exactly what federalist would decide if he were warden.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Mar 21, 2008 1:46:49 PM

Grits, I guess it does bear mentioning that it "takes a village" to put a person in jail.

1) In writing a law, there are many people involved.
2) Congress votes on it
3) The president signs it
4) DOJ starts to figure out how to enforce it
5) DEA starts busting people
6) legal proceedings start (many people are involved here)
7) Unpaid interns think it is great "experience" to be involved in the process of sending someone to a hole
8) The grand jury predictably indicts someone
9) A judge continues the pre-trial proceedings
10) If there is a trial, a jury is involved

and on and on... then someone writes a law review article about it, which causes his career to rise until he can start putting people in jail as well... and the circle of life continues.

Yet, somehow, none of these people think that they bear any responsibility for putting someone in jail and inflicting painful results on others.

Posted by: S.cotus | Mar 21, 2008 2:08:40 PM

Not surprising to see Grits here. Why doesn't anybody consider that the person at fault for this entire sad situation is Jason Yaeger?

Posted by: jimb | Mar 21, 2008 3:26:15 PM

Society didn't inflict harm on that poor little girl. Jason Yaeger did.

Posted by: jimb | Mar 21, 2008 3:30:46 PM

If his conduct was never criminalized, and he wasn't prosecuted he wouldn't be in jail. Society bears some responsibility. (By the way, in real life, I like blaming the most unfortunate people, too. It makes me feel powerful.)

Posted by: S.cotus | Mar 21, 2008 4:11:43 PM

Not surprising to see Grits here. Why doesn't anybody consider that the person at fault for this entire sad situation is Jason Yaeger?

Read the comments, sir.

Society didn't inflict harm on that poor little girl. Jason Yaeger did.

Actually, cancer inflicted harm on that poor little girl. The warden appears to have discretion to let her spend her dying weeks with both of her parents, but seems unwilling to do so. As long as s/he has that power, s/he should explain the decision not to use it. Presumably Yaeger's willing to tack on the furlough time to the end of his sentence.

Posted by: | Mar 21, 2008 4:27:48 PM

The fact that this little girl is inflicted with cancer is nobody's fault. The fact that Jason Yaeger is incarcerated for a drug crime is HIS fault. It is unfortunate in the extreme that he's behind bars while his daughter is dying, but one cannot, IMO, vilify the warden for enforcing this man's sentence. The girl being deprived of her father's presence is a direct result of her father's actions. If he had not committed whatever crime involving meth that he committed, we would not be having this discussion.

Posted by: jimb | Mar 21, 2008 5:41:39 PM

This is not about the father, it's about the little girl who has done nothing wrong and just wants her dad by her side when she dies. A child should never have to die and a parent should never have to loose a child but it happens and it can't be controlled. What can be controlled is that this girl gets her last wish. Jason, the prison inmate, has obviously done some things wrong but this borders on the line of cruel and unusual punishment. This is an "extraordinary circumstance" and Jayci should be granted her dying wish of seeing her father again. I hope the warden makes the right decision....before it's too late and there's not much time.

Posted by: | Mar 21, 2008 6:09:02 PM

Also, hopefully, this incident will deter others from putting their relationships with their children at risk by dealing in the poison that is meth.

Posted by: federalist | Mar 21, 2008 6:25:21 PM

You're right. This isn't about the father. But there's a lesson to be learned here, and Federalist nailed it: Don't put your relationship with your children at risk by dealing in the poison that is meth.

Maybe this girl will get her wish. If so, that will be great for her, and I'll be glad to see her find some peace before the cancer claims her. But the fact remains: Jason Yaeger and Jason Yaeger alone is responsible for the fact that he's separated from his daughter at this time, not any prison official or the justice system or anybody else.

Posted by: jimb | Mar 21, 2008 7:30:02 PM

Scotus:

"when someone is sent to jail is cause for celebration"

Why celebrate? the offender has failed failed to meet societal norms.
The family unit has lost of its members.
Soceity, through education, religion, politics hasd failed to assimilate the offender.
We should never celebrate becuase it takes a village to keep a person out of jail.

"it 'takes a village' to put a person in jail"

It simply take a crooked cop. The oppression of the majority doesn't make it right. That why we have a judiciary.

"one cannot raise 1) laches; 2) unjust enrichment; or 3) unclean hands at sentencing"

A rather limited view of equitable powers as well as equitable considerations that can be rationally employed to ameliorate the harshness of the law. I would bet that in merry old England you would have said "transportation is to good for felons, off with their heads."

Finally remember that most offenders take the short view--what can I get now. In my 20 plus years of criminal defense have I never represented a person who sat down and weighed the direct and collateral consequences of their actions. (I guess I don't meet enough psychopaths) If the did they wouldn't commit the crime in the first place.

Posted by: | Mar 21, 2008 11:01:58 PM

My mother has cancer, after a year of chem., she is in remission. Any doctor will tell you a positive attitude, a lot of love, care and pray, they have witnessed miracles. This fathers presence could make a big difference in this poor little girls health. BUT, we are an uncaring, overzealous, hateful society, we snuff out anyone's HOPE. This little girls HOPE. In the name of what? Justice you say? We do not treat others, in a way in which we would like to be treated. Under these circumstance any one of us would be PLEADING for a little leniency, Hello. God have mercy.

Posted by: America land of the free? | Mar 22, 2008 9:47:32 AM

Just a few technical asides - for those posters who have suggested that the inmate could have the time he (would) spend with his daughter added back on to his sentence, well, it just don't work that way. If he receives a furlough, he is still serving his sentence during that time and the clock continues to run. It also sounds like he's already received a few "escorted trips" to visit his daughter, which is in itself a pretty rare occurrence. And while the facts of this case tug at our heartstrings because there's a 10 year old girl dying, bear in mind that with, what, 2 million (?) people behind bars, this fact pattern (or others involving mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, etc.) is repeated all the time.

Posted by: anonymous | Mar 22, 2008 11:00:07 AM

His sentence should be doubled for just asking to get out early.

And double everyone else's sentence if they don't respect the power and glory of those at the Dept. of Justice. Why can't these people understand that the DOJ has improved these people's lives by putting them in jail for most of their lives? They have to learn a lesson!! We must make an example out of everyone!!!

Posted by: babalu | Mar 22, 2008 7:00:16 PM

If these aren't "extraordinary" circumstances, Charles M. Bezzler is pretty much screwed.

Posted by: Ben D | Mar 24, 2008 12:02:26 AM

RE: His sentence should be doubled for just asking to get out early.

And double everyone else's sentence if they don't respect the power and glory of those at the Dept. of Justice. Why can't these people understand that the DOJ has improved these people's lives by putting them in jail for most of their lives? They have to learn a lesson!! We must make an example out of everyone!!!


Learning Lesson vs. punishment
Lesson = drug treatment, job training and education, guidance, mental health and moral support, decent plan for re entry
Punishment = vindictive, lengthy mandatory sentences and making an example out of EVERYONE, now 2,000,000 + of America's underprivileged, who in most cases lacked adequate council and an honest justice system, DOJ is failing


Posted by: America land of the free? | Mar 24, 2008 12:08:55 PM

America land of the free, The DOJ has nothing to do with this. This is all under state law.

Posted by: S.cotus | Mar 24, 2008 1:24:02 PM

Oh, sorry, wrong post.

Posted by: S.cotus | Mar 24, 2008 1:26:09 PM

America land of the free, The DOJ has nothing to do with this. This is all under state law.

Posted by: S.cotus | Mar 24, 2008 1:24:02 PM


Opps, I was responding to babalu's comments about how the DOJ should be respected for all it's power and glory. I have no respect,sorry.

Posted by: America land of the free? | Mar 24, 2008 9:27:49 PM

s.cotus hit the nail on the head.

Posted by: michael allen | Mar 25, 2008 5:43:31 PM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB