Some people believe that judges should be strictly apathetic and impartial when ruling. But the criminal-justice system is a living, breathing organism, much like the people that pass through it.
That is why judges need to rule from experience and use empathy as well.
Opponents might call this judicial activism, but not everything is black and white, so not every decision should or can be backed by some kind of irrefutable precedent. That’s just not how the criminal-justice system works or should ever work.
So when Judge Richard B. Meyer offered favorable plea deals to some of the assailants in last June’s Bow Tie movie theater attack in Schenectady, I decided not to react too quickly and without reason, which is what lots of people invariably do.
In fact, the topic of recidivism immediately came to mind.
Recidivism studies are very important to the criminal-justice system, and many of them have been conducted that seek to analyze the rate of criminal relapse and the numerous reasons as to why.
Many studies on recidivism, including the one performed by Pew Charitable Trusts in 2011, have shown that most criminals come from a distinct socio-economic background. They are impoverished urbanites that grow up in broken families and live or associate with people who have been convicted of similar crimes.
But what I found to be even more revealing and pertinent to Meyer’s recent ruling is that longer sentences usually lead to higher rates of recidivism.
Why is this important? I’d like to focus particularly on Roeson Cobb, who Schenectady County District Attorney John Healy accused of being the real instigator in the attack on the movie-theater victim and his daughter.
Cobb was barely 16 when the incident took place, which classifies him as a youthful offender. The same applies to most of his accomplices.
In the criminal-justice system, age does not excuse crime, but it does affect the type and length of sentencing for the convicted.
Meyer had an opportunity to throw the book at Cobb and give him up to four years in jail, but instead he only issued a one-year sentence.
Again, this was a fairly violent crime. The victim suffered multiple injuries and his daughter was also struck by an assailant, along with having her cellphone stolen.
So why did Meyer let Cobb get off easy, as some might allege?
Maybe it is because Cobb showed remorse for his actions. No, that’s probably not the case, or at least the whole case. Showing remorse doesn’t guarantee you any leniency in court. After all, anyone can say they are sorry when facing the possibility of a long sentence.
But what about showing progress? Well that changes the story a bit.
While already serving time in jail, Cobb was able to obtain his equivalency degree.
Some prisoners rot away in jail or get into even more trouble. But this kid decided to work toward bettering his future. In essence, he made the best of his situation.
This was a high-profile local case and it received a lot of attention, especially from local publications, and rightfully so.
I can’t imagine what it would be like to be that young and to have your whole world turned upside down for the public to see — to go from feeling free and invincible to being despised and imprisoned.
But I’m not trying to turn Cobb into a victim. No, he’s a product, a product of an increasingly violent society of youthful ignorance and human disrespect.
Yet education often leads to a life completely contrary to the likes of violence, ignorance and disrespect.
One could argue that Cobb has already taken steps toward revitalization. So perhaps, just perhaps, Meyer decided to sentence him to one year in jail to allow him the opportunity to still have a responsible and fulfilling life upon his release.
There’s a pretty big disparity between getting out of jail at 18 and getting out at 21.
Cobb will still have a chance to enjoy the early stages of young adulthood when he is released after a year, instead of coming out of jail a man that spent the past four years behind bars.
We are a society governed by ever-changing rules and laws, so why shouldn’t judges be able to adapt to such changes?
That’s precisely where recidivism comes into play and why judges like Meyer need to be able to utilize empathy and realism when ruling.
If Meyer were to have punished Cobb to the full extent of the law, the likelihood of him relapsing back to criminal activity and winding up in jail again would be quite high.
Meyer’s ruling didn’t minimize the violence that occurred on that fateful night in June 2013, and it didn’t set a precedent that all violent youthful offenders should be given minimum sentences.
In the eyes of the law, Roeson Cobb was a child when he committed the crime, will be a child when he serves his sentence, and will likely just become a legal adult upon his release.
I believe Meyer made the right decision, and I hope Cobb fully embraces the second chance he’s been given.
Robert Caracciolo lives in Schenectady and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.