Pubdate: Sun, 12 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
Author: Thom Marshall

Is Time In Jail Really The Answer?

When the parents arrived last weekend at the prison where their son is
locked up, they were pleased to learn he had been made a trusty.

The mom said they weren't due to be allowed a contact visit for six more
weeks, but because trusties have more privileges, "all our visits from now
on will be contact visits. How wonderful to hug our son."

When last we heard from this family, the mom and dad were fixing to make
their weekly drive of 225 miles to see their son. The mom was going to drive
because the dad needed to take it easy after his heart attack a few days

The son is 20 years old and a few months into three years of hard time for
probation violation. The father said he believes that is too harsh a
sentence for marijuana showing up in a urinalysis on two occasions a year
apart. Said the probation stemmed from burglary charges when the son had
been driving around with a friend who asked him to stop and wait. Said the
son didn't know his friend had burgled the house until the deed was done.
Said he believes his son would be free today if they'd opted for a trial
instead of a plea bargain. Said the family is hoping for an early parole.

Story Prompts Comments

The tale of this family's situation sparked comments from many facets of the
criminal-justice system, an element of our civilization that in recent years
has been heavily involved in drug-war fighting and prison building.

A judge (not the one who sentenced the son) wrote: "Unfortunately, when the
ghetto kids get it socked to them, it's people like this kid's family who
want them locked up and the key thrown away because the ghetto boys are just
criminals. When it's the rich guy's little Johnny that gets it, Johnny just
got in with the wrong crowd. Or if Johnny got in trouble because of drugs,
he needs help instead of prison.

"The only good stemming from this evil is that the father is financially
upper or upper-middle class, and the parents and their friends have some
chance of making themselves heard. In other words, this kid's constituency
votes and has a voice, unlike the ghetto kids, who are being imprisoned by
the thousands every year."

A prosecutor wrote: "I am constantly frustrated by families of criminal
defendants who walk away from a courtroom not thinking that their loved one
has been punished for his actions, but instead believing that the system has
somehow cheated this person. They take this message out into the community,
and feed it to future offenders, who are then angry when `the system'
catches up with them."

A Corpus Christi man with a girlfriend in prison wrote: "My favorite visit
started with a correctional officer that was upset because I had arrived 30
minutes early -- `I don't know why YOU PEOPLE come so early.' Which started
me wondering what kind of people I was. I explained that I had driven 275
miles, and that it usually took five to six hours, depending on traffic, so
it was sometimes hard to judge. I should have just talked to the stick
shift. ... Visitors eat crow so as to be `allowed' a visit."

Paying For Poor Judgment

The mother of a 17-year-old recent boot-camp graduate wrote: "It has been
only a couple of months since our son came home -- full of hope, thankful
for family and ready to start a new life. He has been doing well, working a
job, doing his community service and keeping clean drug tests. He tries to
avoid those people and situations that he knows he must steer clear of. This
is where things get a little tough.

"One night after work he was offered some beer -- free -- by a `friend.' The
temptation proved to be just too much. He was headed home with a back seat
full of beer. None had been opened and, fortunately, he had not drunk
anything when he was stopped for going 43 in a 30-mile zone, and ticketed
for minor in possession of alcohol -- a violation of the terms of his
probation. Because of stupid, youthful indiscretion and poor judgment, he
could now face years in prison.

"People like our son and the young man you wrote about ... must be held
accountable for their choices, and punished for breaking the law, but `lock
'em up' is not the answer all the time. ... As long as there is hope, it
seems a shame to just give up on these young people and discard them."
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