A June story about a woman who was criminally charged for leaving her young song in a car for a short time called “The Day I Left my Son in the Car” from Salon has been trending for weeks, especially due to links from and discussion on parenting sites. In the Salon story, the decision to charge the author was made despite the fact that no harm came to her child, who was in a ventilated car while a parent knew he was there.
Many of the blogposts about the Salon story linked to a much more tragic article from the Washington Post magazine from five years ago. “Fatal Distraction: Forgetting a Child in the Backseat of a Car is a Horrifying Mistake. Is it a Crime?” is about parents who accidentally leave children in cars, usually because they believe they have already dropped their children off at daycare when the child is still in the car, which can be fatal.
A striking statistic from that article is well worth pointing out:
“There may be no act of human failing that more fundamentally challenges our society’s views about crime, punishment, justice and mercy. According to statistics compiled by a national childs’ safety advocacy group, in about 40 percent of cases authorities examine the evidence, determine that the child’s death was a terrible accident — a mistake of memory that delivers a lifelong sentence of guilt far greater than any a judge or jury could mete out — and file no charges. In the other 60 percent of the cases, parsing essentially identical facts and applying them to essentially identical laws, authorities decide that the negligence was so great and the injury so grievous that it must be called a felony, and it must be aggressively pursued.”
The power of the state attorney is so clear in this sad example, if child advocacy groups are correct that in closely similar circumstances, 60% of families face criminal charges while 40% do not. Part of the larger context of why prosecutorial accountability is so vitally important is the expanded power of the prosecutor, which is greater, through discretion in charging, mandatory sentencing and other means, than it has ever been before.