The sentencing of a Vancouver teenager for setting last year’s Eagle Creek Fire brings up complex questions about crime and punishment.
While there is room for disagreement about the appropriate sanctions, the goals are rather simple: fair application of the law; punishment that is reasonable rather than draconian; and sentencing that extracts a price but leaves room for the teen to eventually lead a productive life that contributes to society.
On Feb. 16, the boy — who was 15 at the time and has not been publicly identified — was sentenced in a Hood River, Ore., court to 1,920 hours of community service and five years of probation; restitution will be decided at a hearing in May.
This followed a guilty plea to eight counts of reckless burning of public and private property, two counts of depositing burning materials on forest land, and one count each of second-degree criminal mischief and reckless endangerment of others — all misdemeanors.
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The charges stemmed from the throwing of fireworks that sparked a 75-square-mile wildfire in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. The high-profile nature of the blaze in a beloved part of the region has led to much discussion about whether the perpetrator deserved detention.
Defense attorney Jack Morris said, “In my perspective, the law was applied here as it should. … You’ve been given a second chance; earn it. I can guarantee you that’s what my client will do.”
Defense attorneys are expected to advocate for their clients, but in this difficult case, we agree with Morris.
Locking up criminals can serve two purposes: punishment and/or protecting the public from a repeat of the crime.
In this case, it is inconceivable that the boy will repeat the carelessness that led to the blaze. It even is unlikely that such a conflagration could be repeated; if the fireworks had been tossed during the spring, when the forest is damp, it is probable that a significant blaze would not have occurred.
That leaves only the issue of punishment, an issue that requires nuance.
The boy will spend roughly one year’s worth of full-time work performing community service, a punishment that likely will fill his weekends for several years and reportedly will be overseen by the U.S. Forest Service. It is essential that the service include labor such as landscaping or rebuilding trails, rather than a cushy assignment that is little more than symbolic punishment.
Whether or not that is adequate is an impossible question to answer.
An essential part of the criminal justice system is similar punishments for similar crimes, but the unique nature of this case provides no precedent.
Is 1,920 hours of service — 240 days of full-time work — enough? We don’t know, but an elected judge in Oregon weighed the evidence, looked at the facts, and decided upon what he considered to be appropriate.
That is the way our system works. While that system is imperfect and can be inconsistent, it is preferable to vigilante justice or trial in the court of public opinion. As Michael Lang of environmental group Friends of the Columbia River Gorge said, “The fire is out and the court has spoken.”
Damage from the Eagle Creek Fire was horrific, destroying a signature part of the Northwest and causing widespread economic harm. Punishment is warranted, but in weighing that punishment it is essential to follow the law while also considering the future of the perpetrator.
Damage to the forest has been done; compounding it with overzealous sentencing would have simply compounded the tragedy of the case.