Pubdate: Sun, 05 Mar 2000
Source: Houston Chronicle (TX)
Copyright: 2000 Houston Chronicle
Contact:  Viewpoints Editor, P.O. Box 4260 Houston, Texas 77210-4260
Fax: (713) 220-3575
Website: http://www.chron.com/
Forum: http://www.chron.com/content/hcitalk/index.html
Author: Thom Marshall

HARD TIME COMES OF POOR JUDGMENT

The mom was going to drive the 225 miles to the prison this time, since the
dad is supposed to be taking it easy after his heart attack last week.

It is a four-hour drive each way, and they are allowed one visit of two
hours each weekend. In between visits are phone calls -- about $500 worth a
month. The state and the phone company make a big profit from the high rates
charged when prisoners call home.

Their son was locked up on Nov. 4, for violating probation. The dad said the
son failed a urinalysis after being with some pals who were smoking grass
and he smoked a joint.

One other time, a year earlier, marijuana showed up in a urinalysis, the dad
said, but he had tested clean many times in between.

"He violated probation, and that was wrong. Had they given him boot camp,
I'd have said, `Son, deal with it,' " the dad said. "He's a good kid. Good
kids sometimes make mistakes. He made a mistake, a youthful mistake. I think
this punishment was too severe."

They both work at a steel manufacturing company where the dad is a partner.
The son started working there part time at 15 and joined full time after
graduating from high school. They are close.

Prison sentence stress The dad figures his heart attack was directly related
to the prison sentence and all the hassle and stress from dealing with the
criminal justice system.

"I'm quite sure it had something to do with it," he said. "Absolutely, no
doubt about it."

He blames himself for his son's current predicament. For one thing, a dad
should set a good example along the way. He is a recovering alcoholic.
Something else behind the guilt pangs is that he now believes he should have
insisted on a jury trial for that original burglary charge.

The son was out driving around one night and had a friend with him. The
friend asked him to stop and wait for him. He didn't know the friend was
burglarizing a house until he got back and threw some booty in the car.

The dad believes that account and is convinced that a jury would have, too,
and would have acquitted his son. But the attorney they hired advised that
accepting a plea-bargain deal for probation was safer than risking a trial.

Aware that there are many parents who believe the punishment dished out to
their kids by the courts was too severe, the dad offered a witness to back
up his opinion regarding his son's sentence.

He said that on the morning the judge revoked probation and hit his son with
three years hard time, there was an attorney in the courtroom on an
unrelated case, a lawyer who had never met the son or the parents. After the
sentencing, this fellow approached them and, with tears flowing, he
expressed his sympathy and sorrow.

"It shocked the hell out of me," the lawyer said when I called to ask him
about the incident. "The system has gotten way out of hand with this drug
war. ... This skinny little kid dragged away."

No alternatives considered This lawyer said the judge didn't consider any of
the alternative sentencing tools available -- such as a drug treatment
program, wearing a monitor, community service -- alternatives that cost the
taxpayer much less than locking someone in prison.

The last thing he wanted to do was start crying in front of his client and
numerous of his client's family and friends, this lawyer said, but he
couldn't stifle his tears when talking to the parents of the prison-bound
kid.

He said he told them: "I am so sorry. I am so shocked. I cannot believe my
own eyes. I cannot believe what I have heard."

This lawyer, who called the sentence "the worst travesty I have ever seen,"
asked that I not print his name. Said he is afraid that speaking out could
make it difficult for him to practice his profession in local courtrooms.

The dad said the family hopes for a parole to shorten the prison time. Said
his son, meanwhile, is making the most he can of his situation, trying to be
a model prisoner, going to AA meetings, volunteering to work at a prison
farm.

As for the dad's heart attack, he said it was not a severe one and quick
medical treatment minimized the damage.
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