Phillip Peoples, driving his car at 12th Street and Constitution Avenue NW on September 24, killed Thomas Hollowell who was on a bicycle. Peoples was sentenced to 18 months in prison last month. Should the sentence have been more, or less, or something different?
That a driver faced jail time at all is unusual. Drivers in fatal crashes are rarely charged, in DC or nationally. Statistics from New York City show that less than 1% of driver crashes in 2012 that injured pople walking or biking even led to a ticket, let alone prosecution. A Freakonomics podcast episode called killing someone with a car “the perfect crime.”
In this case, the 20-year-old Peoples, of Suitland, ran a red light, hit Hollowell, 64, and sped away. Prosecutors charged him with murder, and he pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter, asking for forgiveness.
Following the news, some people decried the sentence, saying it was again too lenient. They felt that even in the rare case where a driver was prosecuted and sentenced, he still didn't get the kind of punishment that other homicides do. Involuntary manslaughter generally carries a sentence of up to 30 years, though with no minimum, and the plea agreement called for 12 to 36 months.
However, a growing view in our society, and one I agree with, is that we're incarcerating people too much in general. So “incarceration is bad and we should have less of it, but until we do we should have more incarceration of people who kill with cars” seems to be a contradictory viewpoint.
Also, killing with a car is almost always more about negligence than intent, and that's a big difference in the law. However, that's also the problem — people behind the wheel think they're great and safe drivers, even when they're not, and the consequences can be grave.
We asked our contributors what they think of this news.
Should Peoples be forbidden from driving again?
Many of the reactions to the news pointed not to the sentence itself, but the fact that Peoples will be able to get back behind the wheel. Should people who clearly demonstrate a lack of responsibility be forbidden from driving?
Canaan Merchant noted, “I still remember from my Driver's Ed days that a license 'was privilege' and yet we clearly aren't adhering to that standard considering how hard it seems to say 'you can't be trusted to drive again.'” Dan Malouff said, “Banning this person from ever driving again is only controversial because non-drivers are treated like second-class citizens in this country.”
Tracy Loh pointed out,
The Urban Institute report “Driving to Opportunity” documents how because affordable housing in accessible areas is scarce, low-income people are disproportionately car-dependent. Which is scary because they are also vulnerable to racial profiling in enforcement of driving and parking infractions. With structural racism getting you coming and going, it’s hard to know what the right thing to do is in any one situation. Cyclists are also often caught in damned if you do, damned if you don’t situations when navigating and interacting with other traffic.
In fact, a major thread of criminal justice reformers in recent years has been to target laws which suspend licenses for people whose only crime is not being able to pay some tickets or court costs, such as this case in Tennessee and this one in Montana. DC councilmember Elissa Silverman led the charge to stop suspending licenses for unpaid tickets in DC.
Of course, there's a difference between unpaid tickets and actual unsafe driving. Nick Burger suggested looking at systems similar to what many states do for drunk drivers: some remedial driver's ed training, and escalating penalties for people who continue driving unsafely.
David Cranor wrote,
In general I don't think a long prison sentence serves anyone. And I wouldn't mind if he was allowed to drive after an appropriate period. The human brain isn't done developing until 25 and so some people just to need to age out. After one has demonstrated some form of readiness for safe driving, I'd be OK with letting them get behind the wheel again. And maybe with a higher insurance minimum or other restrictions — for example, insurance companies have toyed with technology that tracks your driving, we could modify that to report to law enforcement if a driver “on probation” is driving safely or not. And if not, they lose their license again. The problem is that DC and MD can't keep WV from giving them a DL, so it would need to be national.
What about community service?
Hollowell's family “urg[ed] the judge to make sure the sentence included doing work on behalf of bicycle and traffic safety,” the Post reported. It doesn't appear anything like that ended up in part of the sentence. Should it be?
Restorative justice is an approach that emphasizes repairing the harm caused by someone's action; it involves a mediation between the victim and the offender and sometimes others who are affected. DC Attorney General Karl Racine has a restorative justice program, as does DC's Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. Many racial justice groups advocate for this approach, especially in schools.
At victims' families request, could people who have killed with a car go give speeches at schools and the like on weekends for a long time about how you can kill someone?
I'd like to see a lot more repayment through community service and reimbursement - which I believe would be useful for most crimes. If someone had to do eight hours of community service for 45 Saturdays a year for 10 years, it would go a long way towards repaying society (and research shows it helps people readjust to society or learn the kind of empathy that helps prevent crime). I'd like to see people pay a tax on future earnings that goes to the beneficiaries of their victim with a goal towards making them whole. Along those lines, I'd be happy to see more use of night-only or weekend only prison facilities, which would allow people to keep working while serving time.
In the end no amount of time will make up for the life lost, but I think we can do more to make the streets safe and to have perpetrators repay their debts in constructive ways.
Loh summed up the general sense of our contributors saying, “I hope [this is] an opportunity to advocate for structural reforms, not to pile onto this driver, even though leaving the scene of a collision is an objectively awful thing to do.”
One key structural reform is the actual physical infrastructure. Designing roads for slower speeds and having more protected bikeways would help keep people safe even when drivers behave badly, as humans often do. Besides that, what structural reforms do you think would make for a criminal justice system that makes roads safer and minimizes structural inequity by race and income?