As we expressed in our weekly column yesterday, if there is a restorative justice process, we believe that the probation sentence imposed on Lauren Kirk-Coehlo for her vandalism and desecration of the Islamic Center of Davis can be appropriate. However, that is not a view universally shared.
Basim Elkarra of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) expressed the view, “Due to the impact on our community and to the damage to a house of worship, we believe that at least some jail time would have been appropriate.”
Hamza El-Nakhal, who had previously announced to the community that he had “already forgiven her in my heart” was concerned as well, as “walking out of this court free is very troubling not only to Muslims, but to African Americans and Latinos I have spoken with. If she’d expressed even some remorse, I’d be much more supportive.”
Many believe that Ms. Kirk-Coehlo benefited from what they saw as a racist system where a white person who perpetrated this crime was granted leniency: “If a person of color, or a Muslim committed the same crime – he would be locked up in maximum security rather than rehabilitated.”
We cannot dispute that possibility – but, as noted yesterday, the answer is to make sure we remedy the system by imposing fair sentences for all rather than imposing an unjust sentence simply because there have been other unjust sentences.
Sacramento Bee Columnist Marcos Breton weighs in.
He writes, “Perhaps if Kirk-Coehlo had vandalized a Catholic or Protestant church or an LBGT center, her legal outcome would have been different. But she damaged the faith home of people who often are seen as the most ‘other’ in our society, a view stoked by President Trump’s unsuccessful ‘travel ban’ …”
He too raises the possibility that “she had certain advantages with the legal system” pointing to her mother who is a retired administrative law judge, her interning for the Sacramento DA’s office, and being a UC Berkeley graduate.
He opines: “Still, it’s not enough. No one is suggesting the young woman should do six years in prison, but a six-month sentence would have been appropriate.”
He adds, “Hers was a message crime, designed to not only strike fear in those who worship at the Davis mosque, but in Muslims all over the region. The judge should have sent a message as well with a harsher sentence, one that said stated clearly that religious persecution will not be tolerated in our community.
“Will there be outrage based on her sentence?” he asks. “Probably not much. But that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be.”
On the flipside of Mr. Breton’s well-considered points are those of Santa Clara County Deputy Public Defender Sajid Khan, himself a Muslim…
He argues, “The culture of mass incarceration has warped our psyches into thinking that lengthy jail or prison terms are always the answer to criminal behaviors. They’re not. This culture of mass incarceration has so shaped our minds that when a judge, like Judge Maguire in this case, undertakes a holistic sentencing analysis that accounts for both the victim and the convicted, we still insist on arbitrary, lengthy terms of incarceration as the response to crime. We have to move beyond the misguided metric of incarceration equaling justice.”
He continues, “The old adage ‘you do the crime, you do the time’ needs to change to ‘you do the crime, you will receive a sentence which may or may not include incarceration that takes into account the gravity of the offense, the impact on the victim, public safety, your background & circumstances and your rehabilitation.’”
Mr. Khan also argues, “Ms. Kirk-Coehlo didn’t walk out of court ‘free’ nor did she get off easy. She, as noted previously, received eight months jail with formal, felony probation for five years. Anyone questioning the severity of eight months jail should spend one night in jail and then tell me she got off light. Any amount of confinement in a decrepit cage should never be diminished.”
He argues that taken in totality the sentence, which includes all sorts of limitations on her freedom, is “not exactly lenient.” He argues, “The gravity of the offense isn’t diminished nor are prospective offenders any less deterred because she received a couple months or years less in custody than the DA and some community members wanted.
“I understand that many in the Davis Muslim community are concerned for their safety and the safety of their children. Ms. Kirk-Coehlo’s exhibited callous, chilling behavior (was) matched by very worrisome dogma and ideology in her social media and internet activity,” he says. But he argues, “That said, caging Ms. Kirk-Coehlo for any longer, be it a couple more months or years, would not enhance public safety. Arguably, it would put the community more at risk.”
This is the key point: “[L]et’s not kid ourselves; our jails and prisons aren’t treatment facilities or mental health clinics. Worse than that, our means and methods of incarcerating people often further traumatizes them and embeds the mentalities that brought them into the cross-hairs of the criminal courts in the first place.”
He adds, “The Judge reasonably believed that Ms. Kirk-Coehlo’s rehabilitative prospects, along with the promotion of public safety, would best be achieved in the community, not in jail.”
Further, he argues that Muslims should be working to dismantle “the culture of mass incarceration, not perpetuating it.”
He writes, “CAIR in particular, as a self-described civil rights organization and widely considered and called upon as the voice of the American-Muslim community, must figure out their stance on issues related to our means and methods of criminal justice. When CAIR and mosque representatives call for more jail time, we validate our broken system of criminal (in)justice that relies heavily and sometimes exclusively on caging our fellow human beings as our response to crime. We effectively send the message that our broken structure and system of mass incarceration is appropriate and legitimate. We perpetuate the machine of mass incarceration that ultimately disproportionately impacts the underprivileged and minorities that make up the bulk of the criminal justice system.”
He then addresses the inequity argument, writing, “While it may be true that similarly situated black or minority offenders would have received harsher outcomes, shouldn’t we instead be calling for a reduction in the sentences of black and minority offenders rather than seeking to over-penalize white offenders? We should use this case and the case of Brock Turner as opportunities and launching points to remedy the inequities that plague our criminal justice system rather than perpetuating them. We should seek to elevate our practices and discourse in response to crime rather than falling back to the customs of disproportionate, harsh sentencing and over incarceration that plague us.”
Finally, he quotes from Bryan Stevenson in his book Just Mercy: “Mercy is most empowering, liberating, and transformative when it is directed at the undeserving. The people who haven’t earned it, who haven’t even sought it, are the most meaningful recipients of our compassion.”
Mr. Khan concludes that “being against mass incarceration has most meaning when we call for decarceration in the least sympathetic cases.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting