Should society punish people based on the severity of the allegations against them, or only on the severity of the crimes for which they are convicted?
The answer should be pretty clear in an innocent-until-proven-guilty nation, but that's not how things unfolded this week when state Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) was arrested for alleged corruption and conspiracy to aid in a supposed gun-running scheme that was actually an FBI sting. That very day, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) called for Yee's resignation and said that if he didn't resign by Friday, the Senate would suspend him. (It did; more on that later.)
Steinberg made sure to slip the words "innocent until proven guilty" into his rhetoric, but then quickly went on to say that the allegations against Yee were so "sickening" that he had to go.
Since when do we make decisions about people's fates based on how terrible the charges are, rather than whether they're known to be true?
Speaking of charges that are known to be true, where were Steinberg's demands for resignation in January? That was when Sen. Roderick D. Wright (D-Inglewood) was convicted of felonies that included filing a false declaration of candidacy as well as fraudulent voting and perjury. There was no disciplinary action at all until Friday, the same day that Yee was tossed out.
Steinberg did call for the resignation of state Sen. Ronald S. Calderon (D-Montebello) after he was charged with bribery in February, and he threatened suspension too, which was never carried out until — well, you guessed it.
Certainly, it would have been hard for Yee to carry out his duties with this cloud over him, and Steinberg's job is to look out for his party — including the supermajority it had in the state Senate until all these scandals — and not the individual. But we should offer more than lip service to the idea of innocent until convicted. Yes, a teacher charged with abusing children must be removed from the classroom immediately because society must err on the side of protecting children. Except for such extreme situations, though, let's not deprive people of their jobs.
This isn't intended as a defense of Yee. I'll leave that to his lawyers. But it is a defense of an ethical and legal concept that we need to hold more dear — and apply equally to all.