A little more than a year ago a story broke about a woman (Ann Pettway) who abducted a newborn baby from a hospital and then raised the child (Carlina White) for twenty-some years. I wrote about it at the time.
Yesterday Ann Pettway pled guilty to kidnapping. While she could face a life sentence, prosecutors agreed to a deal where they will ask for 10-12 1/2 years in prison. For Joy White and Carl Tyson, the biological parents of Carlina White, this agreement is unacceptable. According to the press accounts, Joy White thinks a sentence of 23 years (the length of time she was separated from Carlina White) would be more appropriate.
At the same time, the expectation reported here (which may not be real, but I will take it as such for the moment) is that Carlina White will weigh in on behalf of Pettway. I don’t know what has happened since the whole story came to light, but I gather that they (Pettway and Carlina White) have remained in touch.
Of course it isn’t my job to figure out what the right sentence is (and I’m glad of that) but I do think it’s worth thinking about. What’s the point of a prison sentence here? I’ll try to be systematic and run through some possiblities.
It isn’t to keep Pettway from doing the same thing again. I don’t think anyone asserts that there’s any chance that she’ll reoffend. It’s hard for me to say that she needs to be rehabilitated.
There’s vengeance, of course. An eye for an eye. And I think that is the spirit in which Joy White suggests 23 years. I’m not a fan of vengeance, personally, but it’s clear that vengeance is one of the basic purposes of punishment in our criminal system.
There’s also deterrence. What Pettway did is a terrible thing that caused terrible harm to the people involved. It’s not remotely acceptable. That’s why it is a crime and a serious crime at that. To vindicate the greater interests of the justice system, the law must be enforced. There must be punishment for a breach lest others think this isn’t such a serious thing. If deterrence is your purpose, though, the 23 years figure loses its obvious justification. Considering how long a sentence is required for deterrence mandates a completely different analysis.
These sorts of factors are present in many if not most criminal cases. But there’s an additional factor floating around here. What about the interests of Carlina White? I’m inclined to think that it is her interests that ought to be controlling here.
It’s a sad truth that no one can make up the lost time to Joy White and Carl Tyson. You could lock Ann Pettway up for the rest of her life and it wouldn’t give them back the years they missed. Perhaps their impulse for vengeance would be gratified and thus, they’d be marginally happier.
But would this happiness come at a cost to Carlina White? Ann Pettway raised Carlina White and thus, for better or worse, they ended up with some sort of relationship. I’m in no position to say what that relationship is, but there aren’t any allegations that Ann Pettway was cruel to Carlina White during the years she raised her. It seems to me possible that Ann Pettway is an important figure in Carlina White’s life. And if she is, and if Carlina values her relationship with Ann Pettway, then there is a potential cost to Carlina White in locking Ann Pettway up for the rest of her life or even for 23 years. If that is the case (and there are a lot of “ifs” strung out here), then I think that cost outweighs whatever gratification the lengthy sentence might bring to the biological parents.
No one can fix this situation. The best we can do is move forward in the way that is best for those who have been harmed. I think we ought to take our cues from Carlina White and I’ll be very interested to hear what she has to say.