Wednesday, November 3, 2010
When I was about 9 years old, my cousin Kim and I got into a fight. I don't remember what we were fighting about, but I got so angry I picked up a vase and hit her in the mouth with it. A chip of her tooth flew across the room, and buckets of tears gushed through her closed eyes as she gripped her mouth shut.
I threatened her not to tell my mother, convincing her we'd both be punished if she did. And so she didn't. I knew my punishment would be more severe than any she'd receive. She'd hurt my feelings, but she had a chipped tooth and a bloodied top lip.
We hurriedly flushed the piece of tooth down the toilet and sat in my room waiting for her lip to stop bleeding. Things were back to normal by the evening for my cousin and me. I whispered, "Sorry" to her when we'd finished quoting "Now I lay me down to sleep ..." on our knees that night.
My grandmother always taught me if you never did anything to get into trouble, you wouldn't have to worry about trouble. There is great merit to that life philosophy, but some of us do things that warrant punishment.
In February 2005, police pulled James V. Taylor over on a routine traffic stop. Police found a crack pipe in his car and, according to reports, an "unweighable" amount of crack cocaine. Farmington, Mo., police arrested Taylor, and he was eventually sentenced to 15 years in prison. He served four of those years.
Taylor shouldn't have had a crack pipe, but there's something excessive about his punishment, much like the double life sentence Judge Marcus Gordon handed down to Jamie and Gladys Scott in 1994 for stealing $11 to $200 (the exact amount is still unclear).
In Ward Schaefer's cover story this week about the Scott sisters and their mother's one-woman campaign to free them, the fallacies of our judicial system advertise to all who will look that America isn't quite what we claim: a country that offers liberty and justice for all.
Critics of convicted criminals like Jamie and Gladys Scott, James Taylor and others sing a similar chorus: "They did the crime; they should do the time. ... If crimes go unpunished, we may as well be living in a lawless society." But these situations aren't about not punishing wrong. They're about compassion, grace and--I must--race and economics.
Last August, police arrested the notorious Hilton spawn, Paris, for 0.8 grams of cocaine that fell out of the purse she was carrying. Hilton was sentenced to a year of probation, a drug-rehabilitation program, 200 hours of community service and a $2,000 fine.
How does 0.8 grams of cocaine get a year of probation but a crack pipe and an "unweighable" amount of crack cocaine warrant 15 years in prison?
Prosecutors defend such disparities by claiming crack gets into one's bloodstream faster than powder cocaine because it's smoked not snorted, making for a more intense high and greater chemical dependency. That would be a good explanation, if I believed it. I don't.
When then-President Ronald Reagan started the War on Drugs in the '80s, it seemed to be the black crack users in blighted urban areas he and his soldiers were concerned most about. And so the war continues.
In the mid-1970s, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice and Statistics, the America's prison population was about 300,000. This year, the number has spiked at about 2.4 million prisoners. This doesn't take into account the number of people on probation or parole, which would increase the number to about 5 million people. Seventy percent of those nearly 7.5 million are people of color--nonwhite. Yet 74.8 percent of the country's 310 million people are white. Something ain't right.
People of color are disproportionately incarcerated for crimes their white brothers and sisters in offense are slapped on the wrist for. It's all too convenient to be a coincidence.
If we're honest, it won't change any time soon. While there are people who want to reform the criminal justice system, a reformation begs for a serious and intentional look at skin color and money (or lack thereof). A cultural shift in the criminal-justice system--from punishing to rehabilitating--requires that we not just have a 25-plus-year war against drugs that no one's won. It necessitates that we are for something. That we do something other than build more prisons during the day and gripe about public schools at night. It seems not many people are interested in that, though.
When I overhear people talking about being "pro-life," I can't help but interrupt to ask if they're for the death penalty. The many who are in favor of both don't see hypocrisy in their beliefs. Occasionally, someone will ask me in return, "Aren't you in favor of the death penalty?" My response is rarely different: "If there was equal justice under the law, I might consider it. Until then, no, I'm not."
We live in an advanced society. We can call, text or video chat someone thousands of miles away without a second thought. We're growing, as a people, to be not just tolerant of but accepting of people who look, act and believe differently than we do. Political correctness has its cons, but its introduction to dialogues has also forced us to choose our words carefully and consider our enemies, not just our friends. But with all that advancement, we still find ourselves holding on to primitivity.
The Babylonians' Code of Hammurabi, which dates back to about 1760 BCE, says just punishment is an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, depending on social status of slave versus free men. Centuries later, though most people would never publicly embrace this philosophy of punishment, our justice system repeatedly proves it's our way of life.
People scream about being fair, but we don't want fair. If things were fair, many of us would have never passed that class, landed that job or gotten out of that speeding ticket. We need new standards of compassion and grace.
People who do wrong should be punished, but when do grace and compassion become part of the equation? When do we start to love the sinner and hate the sin, as I was always taught, growing up in church?
Decisions, good and bad, have consequences. They should. But throwing the proverbial book at people who've wronged us should give us pause as we consider what happens if the book boomerangs. Don't talk to me about equality; show it to me.
Sorry, Kim, about your tooth. Thanks for teaching me a life lesson I've never forgotten.
Natalie, Anyone who knows anything about me knows I agree with your points and your point of view. That being said, let me commend you for the skill you displayed in crafting your story. You started with a nice "fairy tale" and gradually drew me and you readers, into your innocent childhood world and then you "deftly thrust" (is that possible? I guess so!) us into the present world of injustice, racism and mean heartedness. Great story, great moral lesson and great writing. More please!