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Mom serving two years after serving drinks

Filan: While mom used poor judgment, the sentence is excessive and harsh

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Mom jailed for serving alcohol to kids
June 15: A mother goes to jail for serving alcohol to underage kids at a graduation party. TODAY's Natalie Morales reports.
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Susan Filan
Senior legal analyst

A stay-at-home mom with no prior criminal record has been sentenced to two years and three months in jail for hosting a party at her Virginia home at which she served alcohol to underage teens.   Elisa Kelly's rule was all the kids had to stay the night, and no one could drink and drive.  Kelly's two sons, Ryan and Brandon, asked her to buy their friends some beer and wine, and she did, thinking it was better to have them drink supervised and safe.  

While she clearly used poor judgment, broke the law and infuriated the parents of the other teens who were at her house, over two years in prison is by any standards excessive and harsh.   It is a ridiculously over-punitive sentence which clearly does not fit the crime.  No one was hurt, and notably, no one was intoxicated.   They were breathalyzed and no one was over the legal limit.

The real reason this sentence is wrong is because her sons are suffering perhaps more than their mother.   Their guilt alone is eating them alive.  They told the Washington Post they wish they could serve her sentence for her because she would not have done it had they not asked her to.   Kelly is quick to remind them she was the adult and she alone, not they, is responsible and has to pay the price.  But the price should be within keeping of the offense.   These two boys will have to finish high school without their mother.  One boy has already dropped out, quit athletics and works full-time at UPS so he can earn enough money to buy a house for their mom when she gets out of jail.   She had to give up her apartment and put her things in storage. They will only be allowed to visit their mother in jail once a month for fifteen minutes each.   The consequences of this sentence are totally disproportionate to what she did.  The irreversible consequences of of her incarcation on her sons' lives is nothing short of tragic.  

When a court issues its sentence, the court has to consider not just the illegal conduct, but the person and her life as a whole, all of her circumstances, including the impact the sentence will have on her family, in this case, her two teenage sons.

I do think she should be punished, make no mistake.  Were I the judge, I would send her to jail too.   But I would sentence her to serve not more than 90 days.  That sends a message that what she did was clearly wrong, and would serve as a deterrent to other parents who think they are doing their kids a favor by helping them drink or that it is safer to drink at home with a parent than out without one.   I would also give her some period of time on house arrest or home confinement, and order her to perform several hundred hours of community service to include working with MADD or some similar organization, and she would have to work with parents and teens to increase awareness about the perils of underage drinking.   That is punishment enough.  And it saves three lives, instead of ruining three lives.

The power to prosecute and the power to punish is mighty.  It must be used appropriately, always, and it must balance the needs of the individual with the needs of the people, the greater good.

Unfortunately, because she has exhausted her appellate remedies unsuccessfully, she had no choice but to surrender herself on Monday and begin serving her term of confinement.  

Unlike Paris Hilton, I don't think a doctor's note or a feigned nervous breakdown will help secure Elisa Kelly's early release.   Being a mere mortal, and not a celebutante, she will have to serve her time and hope that she can parent her sons from prison.  

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