For most of my adult life I have been a journalist. For much of that I have covered the courts.

What that means is, that I've come in contact with many things most have not, and a good chunk of it I'd very much like to get out of my head.

My wife, God love her, knows if I come home in a black mood and she asks "what's wrong?" and I grunt "court" not to inquire further. Not because she doesn't love me or want to help, but rather because she learned the hard way several years ago she doesn't want this stuff in her head, either.

So it is with that background I say I grow very tired of hearing how a criminal is not a monster but just "made a mistake."

The Montana man, sentenced to 60 days in jail and probation after he had raped his 12 year-old daughter repeatedly, did not "make a mistake," as his wife said.

A mistake is the time I accidentally substituted self-rising flour for regular flour when baking chocolate chip cookies. A mistake is the time I got incredibly frustrated when the password I was entering into my work computer wouldn't work — because it was my home password. Those are mistakes.

What that man did was monstrous.

What criminals do is make a choice to break the law. This is not a "mistake" it was a deliberate act. They knew what they were doing was wrong and did it anyway.

When the toddler we're raising does that he gets punished. Not excused for making a mistake.

I also grow weary of hearing how punishment isn't the answer.

The problem isn't the punishments but the way they are applied.

Say a kid catches a shoplifting beef. First time around he gets probation. Probably unsupervised or pretty minimal supervision. Now let's say he doesn't have the best parents. So at most he catches hell for the fine, but they've caught their own share of cases so they don't do much — not that they would anyway.

He'll catch a few more minor misdemeanors while a juvenile, each a little more serious than the last, but still, no real teeth to anything.

Then he turns 18 and that juvie record goes away.

But no one has ever told him "no," he's never had any real discipline and has the usual attitude of the habitually criminal "You can't make me do nothin'!"

So as an adult he catches a few more misdemeanors, at most a few days in the county lockup, fines he won't pay, and probation.

First felony is probably drugs or minor theft, maybe burglary. Presumptive probation cases and he's been on probation on and off since he was 13, so who cares?

He'll catch four or five more of those before he finally commits ENOUGH crimes, or one serious enough that he's going to prison.

By this time he's probably in his early 30s. Never held a job that didn't involve a hair net and saying "would you like fries with that?" and never held one of those for more than a few months, maybe a year, before his boss talked to him in a way he didn't like and he either quit or got fired because "you can't make me do nothin'!"

By the time he catches a sanction with any real teeth in it, he's a lost cause. A habitual criminal, no education, dumb as a post, but with a certain animal cunning, good at manipulating people and the system and no more between him and his will than a wolf has.

Now is this a hypothetical?

Sort of.

This is 90 percent of the people I've seen go through the court system in the last 20 years of covering cops and courts.

And as frustrating as it is for me, it's even more frustrating for the prosecutors, judges and cops who see these same people over and over — sometimes multiple generations of the same family in jail at the same time.

Most of these kids had their initial excursions into criminality excused as "mistakes."

Perhaps if we quit excusing criminal decisions as "mistakes" we might have a few less criminals.

As Author S.M. Stirling has pointed out in several of his books "Mercy to the guilty is cruelty to the innocent."

All IMHO, of course.

— Patrick Richardson is the managing editor of the Pittsburg Morning Sun. He can be emailed at, or follow him on Twitter @PittEditor.