I write this sitting in a juvenile justice courtroom. I’m here every three months, paying on an old fine imposed on my son when he was 15. He’s 22 now, and incarcerated in big boy jail since he was 17. During his last trial, I totally forgot about this debt and so now I am held in ‘contempt of court’ until the remaining thousands of dollars are paid in full.
I never thought this would be my life, my journey. But like all the parents sitting in this room waiting to see the judge, we were held financially accountable for our kids’ transgressions.
We are grossly under informed and ignorant of our situation in America, and we know English. We have made a business out of criminal justice, and have thrown out any notion of ‘correcting’ anything.
In the City of Richardson, where my husband and I reside and where we raised 5 kids, I was required to sign the Student Handbook or my children couldn’t get their grades released or other normalcies, I forget what all now. Teachers made it easy for us, they simply printed out the signature page and sent it home with other paperwork that required signing.
When my youngest son was in the 9th grade, a detective took him out of his classroom and showed him pictures of a vandalized home the next street over from ours. He cried. He was ashamed. He admitted to the damage the detective showed him in those images with the principle standing by. No one called me. No one called an attorney. And when I found out about it I hit the roof!! They had him sign a confession of guilt right there.
As I scoured every legal document I could find, believing it could not be legal to have him do that with no adult on his side present, I learned to my horror that I gave up my right to have a Principle contact me about the approach by the time he was in the 6th grade. No kidding. Every parent in RISD did. It was in the handbook.
The home he vandalized was a run-down, unlocked duplex our friends had recently moved out of. The landlord had done a rotten job of caring for it when they were tenants, and after they left, she was getting it ready to put it up for rent again. My son had entered that home twice that year with his friends and destroyed it. The detective said he had done it three times, and the prosecutor said since he confessed to all three, he would not remove any charges. They amounted to 3 felony vandalism charges worth over $50,000 per count. That duplex wasn’t worth $50,000 if it was in perfect condition! But we couldn’t afford to defend him, and he was facing juvenile jail and a couple years in county after that if he was found guilty in court. So we agreed with the public defender to plea bargain to reduce the charge from three criminal felonies to one civil charge, with a high debt but a remanding to our custody.
Well, he got in more trouble at 17. So everything that was not paid is now mine to pay. And because he got in trouble again, when he gets out of prison, he’ll have a backstory that includes multiple felonies.
What we have here, and what I want you to see, is that criminal justice issues are not in my opinion, limited to black on black or any color issue that’s in the news media today. What we have here is a predatory environment for our children as young as 7 at least in the state of Texas. The younger they are when they are charged with a crime, the more it is considered ‘normal’ to them. The younger they’re incarcerated, the more they are expected to return. THIS IS NOT A SOLUTION. (Go ahead, ask me how I know that.) They get probation fees, but when no one will hire them, the fees are still owed. And SOMEONE will pay. Even for someone’s fraudulent insurance claim deductibles. NO evidence of her actual damages were EVER questioned. As parents, we need to understand just HOW MUCH we need to be doing at a much earlier age to divert drug use and behavioral issues, because our criminal ‘justice’ system has no mercy or common sense whatsoever. It’s about money, and they don’t care if your kid spends life in jail. After all, taxes pay for those beds, and pay much more than an offender or jail worker will ever see, that’s for sure.
He deserved penalties. Both times. They have been quite severe. But through this experience, and juvenile prison ministry, I’ve seen what’s happening across the board. I’ve asked the questions. I’ve sat in the courtrooms and gone to the rallies. We have abandoned mercy and common sense to an overbearing idea of justice with penalty that holds way too many people accountable for the same crime. Instead of doing everything in our power to correct behavior. Parents agree – the worst thing you can do for a pothead is put him in a position where he can’t work. Forget the pot, he needs a JOB if he is ever to outgrow it and learn to think productively! Otherwise, indeed – one drug leads to the next. Criminal charges or not.
There Oughta Be a Law
EVERYTHING is a crime today with at least a financial penalty. Every single missed deadline or stepping out of line in business or in life costs major bucks. Prosecutors enjoy trumping up the highest charge with the largest penalties they can muster, especially if you don’t have an attorney. Public defenders are NOT the same thing at ALL. They must petition the court for the right to bring in professional witnesses. They can’t speak to the defendant privately. Although it’s not admitted, they work to get a plea because a plea is a conviction – which equals money. Prosecutors who can count on their public defenders to get that plea are willing to negotiate; it’s good business sense. In my opinion, that looks like public defenders work for prosecutors.
Crime, rightly so, carries penalty. But we need to re-think what we’re considering crime, how we’re assessing felonies, and methods that do more to correct behavior for long term success. As it stands today, it’s a racquet. It’s an addict farm we don’t want to see because it’s ugly and dirty, but it’s also reliable monthly revenue for city, county and state.
Look, I’m NOT saying criminal behavior is OK or should be ignored. Here are just a few examples of stupid legal situations most judges don’t even like.
Driving without insurance
(50% of drivers in Texas are guilty of this, many due to poverty.)
Marijuana possession, or possession of paraphernalia
(Makes GOOD money, reliable revenue, and urine tests push potheads to the SUPER dangerous alternative marijuanas because they don’t show up in those tests – like K2 and many others – causing extreme violence and death. People don’t stop smoking pot because they were incarcerated or given probation.)
Drug possessions during other crimes
(If criminal activity happens under the influence of drugs, the drugs cause the penalty to be amplified. Most people would never have committed the crime in their right minds. Drug use should be a flag for rehabilitation and recovery, not longer incarceration.)
(If a person is found guilty of a crime more than twice, they get much stiffer penalties. This might be fine for some crimes, but in others, it’s ridiculous.)
Criminal justice is paid for out of our taxes. We pay for the whole kit-and-kaboodle, and we vote in the judges. I think it’s time for ALL of us to wake up and become educated voters. It is way too easy to be a serious criminal in America.
Susan Hamilton is the owner, host and editor-in-chief at OffBeat Business Media, a business for business digital media resource for strong brand development. Contact Susan at Susan@OffBeatBusiness.com or call 214-714-0495 to discover how digital content can work for you.