I gave it serious thought, since I believe that the criminal "justice" system in this country is grossly over-used and badly broken. I even drafted a letter. But when I read it over the next day, I decided that it probably wouldn't get the prisoner released. It might even get both him -- and me -- in more trouble. So I'll just put a modified version of it here and walk quietly away.
Dear Louisiana Board of Pardon and Parole:
At 7:20 pm one spring night a few years ago, I was held up at gunpoint in the parking lot outside my apartment. I was subsequently told that a young man had been arrested for the crime. In actuality, however, we can’t know that it could have been proven it was him that did it because the case never went to trial. He was pressed to take a plea and accept a sentence of ten years. I can only imagine what he was threatened with that made this option seem the best he could hope for.
As far as I can tell, this matter was never put into any context. Reports in the local daily newspaper were all the information I had to go on and they gave me to understand that the person arrested was an adolescent when he committed the crime (assuming he did so), a crime which netted its perpetrator precisely twenty-three dollars and a couple of credit cards that were useless fifteen minutes later.
I don’t mean to suggest that the local police department didn’t do a good job investigating the crime and presenting enough evidence to satisfy probable cause. I think they did. But without a trial before a jury of this young man’s peers (unlikely under our current judicial system), we’ll never know, will we?
You see, I’m a sociologist who has studied race relations in the United States since 1963, with a special interest in criminal justice. Earlier in my life, I spent nearly a decade connected to the Department of Juvenile Justice in south Florida in a range of ways, at least some of which involved direct service to young men just like the one that robbed me – whoever that was. Further, I drafted a statement related to “crime and punishment” several years ago that got some consideration and positive response among local decision-makers. So I see this situation as much more complicated than most people would.
For this reason, the morning after I was robbed, I told my colleagues and students at the university where I teach that those of us who are privileged in our society to be able to have a job and pay our bills and go out to eat without having to consider the effects of White Supremacy and other factors that make our lives easier and others’ lives harder too often allow ourselves to think that the pain caused by these factors in others’ lives will not reach out and touch us. This is naïve at best and socially irresponsible regardless. And if we don’t begin to acknowledge and address the brutal differences in our American culture, more and more of us will find our sense of community at the end of a gun.
It isn’t that I wasn’t terrified by what happened to me. I was. But whoever robbed me was not aggressive. He didn’t run up on me yelling to intimidate me or even threaten me verbally at any point. In fact, he didn’t even pull out his gun until I started rummaging around at length in my briefcase, looking for my wallet. I suspect he thought I might have been reaching for a gun myself since so many in Louisiana do. He might simply have been preparing to defend himself.
My point is that I don’t think whoever did the crime against me was “psychotic.” I think he was desperate. He put his life on the line and risked prison – perhaps repeatedly – for a few dollars. This is not a satisfying way to make a living. But until we address the on-going destruction of the human spirit that is caused by White Supremacy: poverty, discrimination in every area of our lives (including our public schools), no protection for the basic human rights of so many of us, lack of opportunities for employment and a living wage, lack of a sense of safety, and lack of respect as a valuable part of the community, we are being dishonest with ourselves about what we should be able to expect in return.
I realize that you are only trying to do your job. You're charged with making a decision on one “case." Even if you wanted to address the root causes of all that created the crime against me, you don’t have the information, the resources, or the authority to do so. I don’t either. But I was invited to make a statement to you about this matter and, since this is the first time during this entire process I have been invited to participate meaningfully, I am.
I've been asked if the crime in question changed my life and I must say it has. But not as much as it changed the young man’s life who went to prison for the crime – whether he was guilty or not. If I’m being asked, on the other hand, whether I think he’s suffered enough, then my answer is that I think he suffers every day he lives in this White Supremacist country. He has been judged for his response to that suffering, but to brutalize human beings in myriad ways and then expect them to accept these conditions quietly is, in my opinion, not only unrealistic, but immoral.
It’s not about second chances. It’s about first chances. If we don’t have the will to ask the right questions and commit ourselves to formulating answers couched in simple human decency to alleviate the very real suffering of so many of our citizens – and most particularly our young citizens – we have no right to hold this young man further, no matter what the outcome.
Let him go.