Thursday, March 17, 2011

Mandatory Minimum Sentences

Across America, small private tragedies are enacted, as young men are arrested for drug dealing and tossed into jail for staggeringly long sentences.

Jim liked to smoke pot.  Smoking pot is bad for you, of course, and it was taking a toll on Jim's young life.  But it was about to exact a severe toll, and he didn't know it yet.  He had already dropped out of college from pot smoking, and he was living at home with his parents, spending most of his days in the basement, sleeping, watching TeeVee, and smoking pot.  He would occasionally get slacker jobs like delivering pizzas, just so he could buy more pot.

And his parents pretty much left him alone.  As his Father put it, Jim wasn't costing them much money, and it was nice to have someone home, watching the house and walking the dog, particularly when they went to Florida for the winter months.  So they let Jim live in the basement, figuring he'd "grow out" of this phase, but secretly enjoying lording over his ruined life, and enjoying playing the role of parent for yet a few more years.  It was like having a perpetual child.  But shortly, things would happen that would make this arrangement anything but inexpensive, but rather quite costly, in both economic and emotional terms.

Jim never dealt drugs, of course.  That is to say, he'd buy a small amount of pot from a friend, when his friend had it to sell, and when he managed to score an ounce, he'd sell similar bags to his friends, to return the favor.  It was an informal arrangement, to be sure.  And he and his friends would while away the hours in the basement, smoking pot, talking about their wild dreams to make it big some day, or what "mods" they wanted to put on their clapped-out economy cars that were handed down from their parents.

Jim and his friends had girlfriends, on occasion, but most of these relationships were short-lived, when the girls figured out that Jim and his ilk would never get a real job and move out of their parent's house.  Females, having a uterus, have a nesting instinct, as they realize, at least subconsciously that they may have needs down the road that require stability and a steady income.  So the girlfriends (the smarter ones) dump Jim and his friends, eventually, and the boys sit around smoking pot and complaining that women are all a bunch of "bitches".  Pot smoking and misogyny go hand in hand.

And on occasion, they scrape up enough money to go to a rock or rap concert, or perhaps a rave or private party, where they might find some LSD, or increasingly today, Ecstasy, which of course, is a lot of fun, at least at the moment.

This idyllic lifestyle could go on forever, but eventually, events conspire to disrupt the pot-smoker's life.  And for Jim, horribly bad things are about to happen.

Joe is an acquaintance of Jim's.  They are not "friends", having gone to different high schools.  In fact, they really dislike one another, but one aspect of pot smoking is that you end up "hanging" with a lot of "interesting" people over time.  And Jim runs into Joe at one the the backyard raves they both attend.  But they don't share time in each other's basement bong lairs or otherwise hang out together.

Thus, it is a big surprise to Jim, when, one day he gets a phone call from Joe, asking him if he has any Ecstasy to sell.  Jim is not a serious drug dealer, of course, and his only experience with Ecstasy is in buying a pill here and there on the street or from a friend.  Joe tells Jim that he is planning a rave event and needs 100 Ecstasy pills right away.  Jim says he has no idea where to get such a quantity of drugs.  Joe tells Jim, "Well, if you hear anything, let me know!  I'm willing to pay $20 a tab!"

Jim knows this is a lot of money to pay for Ecstasy, and figures Joe is an idiot.  He hangs up the phone and has another bong hit.  Now, what happens next would raise the suspicions of any normal person.  But Jim is stoned out of his mind, and as a result, his critical thinking skills are dampened.  About a half-hour later, the phone rings again.  This time it is Jason.  Jason is another stoner that Jim "sort of" knows from parties and other friends, but is not really a close friend.  Jason has an interesting proposition for Jim!

"Yo, Jim, Homeboy, I got this load of E I have to unload.  You know anyone looking? You interested?  I'm looking to get $5 a tab for them!  You want to buy any?"

Jim is intrigued by this offer.  Two people calling about Ecstasy in one day!  What are the odds! (1:1 as we will find out shortly).  Jim thinks for a moment in his pot-fogged brain.  He could buy the Ecstasy from Jason for $5 a tab, and then re-sell it to Joe for $20 a tab, and make a quick $1500, which surely would buy a boatload of weed!  One small problem, though, is Jim has never had $500 in his pocket during his entire lifetime (which is pathetically sad).

"I might be interested in buying 100 tabs" Jim says, "But I don't have the cash right now.  I could pay you back on Monday.."

Jason replies almost immediately, "No problem!  I can float you for a few days, bro!"

And Jim and Jason set up a "meet" to get the drugs.  Jim calls Joe back and tells him he can supply the Ecstasy for his party, and sets up a second meeting with Joe.

"Sweet!' Jim thinks, "This is easy money!" All that bullshit about getting a job and a career his parents keep hammering him about is crap!  He could make a ton of dough this way, being a drug middleman.  He does another bong hit and fantasizes about his future career as a "big time" drug dealer, with his fancy hopped up Honda Civic and a babe on each arm.

Meanwhile, in a police station 50 miles away, Joe hangs up the phone and says "It's a go."  He looks across the table at Jason, who, like himself, is handcuffed to the table.  The Detective in the room shakes his head and says, "See?  That wasn't so hard to do!"

But Jason and Joe exchange a look that could kill.  They both know they are setting Jim up, big time, and are exchanging their freedom by destroying the life of another.  But considering what they are facing, you can understand the temptation.

You see, Joe and Jason were busted for drug dealing.  Perhaps they were set up in the same manner as Jim is being set up.  Or maybe they were really serious drug dealers.  It doesn't matter.  The upshot is that the detective told them they would be facing mandatory minimum sentences for drug dealing of 15 to 20 years each.  They would be middle-aged men by the time they were released, and the best part of their lives would be spent in jail.

Under constant haranguing from the Detective, they finally agree to "give up" Jim in exchange for a lesser, misdemeanor charge that would allow them to serve 18 months in the County lockup.  The Detective in the case likes this kind of deal, as it ups the number of convictions and makes him look good.  And he uses the excuse that he is "working his way up the distribution chain" to convict more serious "high level" dealers, when in fact, he is just getting 20-something kids to rat each other out.

The next day, the deals go down.  Jason visits Jim in his home and drops off the 100 tabs of Ecstasy, fresh from the Police evidence room.  An hour later, Jim drives his clapped-out Civic over to Joe's house to deliver the goods and collect his $2000.  The moment the money (again, fresh from the Police evidence room) changes hands, the Detective and uniformed Officers spring from an adjacent room and slap the handcuffs on a very surprised Jim.

Now, any astute person would have seen this all going down.  And professional drug dealers would never fall for such an obvious gag.  But amateurs pot smokers do, all the time.  And I know, personally, more than one person who has been nailed, using this primitive and obvious technique.- Jim 's story is based on these real people's experiences.   Despite what you see on the TeeVee, Police Detectives, particularly in drug squads, often aren't all that smart or sophisticated (or honest) - and the only thing they have going for them is that pot smokers like Jim are in a fog most of the time and willing to do really, really dumb things.

Jim's parents have to fly back from Florida to get bail for Jim - using their home as collateral.  This is going to be a very expensive incident in their life - one that will re-shape their life forever.  They are shocked to learn from the Police that Jim is a "high level drug dealer" and initially, they believe the Detective's spiel about Jim.

And after they spring Jim from the County slammer, they still believe that, at least for a while.  Jim protests that he was "set up" - but his parents will hear none of it.  The really bad news happens when they hire a Lawyer.  The Lawyer tells them it will cost tens of thousands of dollars to defend Jim.  That is bad enough.  But the other shoe drops - Jim is facing a felony conviction and a mandatory 15-year sentence, if convicted.  Worse yet, the State's "Law and Order" voters elected legislators who pushed through a new law abolishing parole.  Jim could be in jail until he is nearly 40.

Jim's parents are devastated.  Their child is being taken from them - possibly forever.  They might be dead before Jim is released from prison.  And of course, their neighbors no longer want to talk with them, after reading about Jim's drug arrest in the paper.  That really doesn't matter, of course, as they will likely have sell their house and move anyway, just to pay all the legal fees.  Suddenly, overnight,  their lives are turned upside-down.

And of course, Jim doesn't know anyone he can trick into selling drugs - so he can get a reduced charge.  The Police have made a big deal in the press about Jim's arrest, so no one would be stupid enough to respond to the same gag Jim fell for.  Jim is going to be the "fall guy" in this one.   And Joe and Jason will testify at his trial.

And at the trial, Jim's Lawyer isn't allowed to tell the jury that if they convict Jim, he will be put away for a longer time than some murderers and rapists.  Even when cross-examining Joe and Jason, he can't bring up what sentences they were facing, to try to discredit their testimony.

The jury is made up of retirees and welfare recipients.  Working people "don't have time" to sit on juries and use whatever excuse they can to duck jury duty.  The elderly people on the jury are scared of boys like Jim, in their clapped-out Hondas, playing rap music too loudly.  They remember seeing boys like them at a traffic light, who pulled up next to them, playing music so loudly it hurt their ears.  The boys said "fuck you, Grandma!" and gave them the middle finger.  Kids like that should be locked up!  So they vote to convict, not realizing that Jim could easily have been their grandson.

And welfare recipients on the jury are from neighborhoods ravaged by drug crime.  They are tired of seeing all their stuff stolen, and seeing kids lives ruined on the streets.  And they see Jim as the problem - and vote to convict.

None of the jurors are aware that they've taken a confused, but largely harmless young man, and sent him away for 15 years.  And if asked later on, they'd all say - without exception - that they would have not voted to convict if they knew that.  And they all say - without exception - that they would have either acquitted Jim, or voted to convict on a lesser, misdemeanor charge, if they could have done so.

But they could not have done so.  The "Law and Order" District Attorney is running for re-election, and he is touting his conviction rate in the "War on Drugs" as reason to re-elect him.  And cases like Jim's are money in the bank.  So he doesn't offer the jury the chance to convict on a misdemeanor charge, but instead tries Jim on the felony charge alone.  The jury has only two choices - guilty or not-guilty on that charge.

And the jury finds Jim Guilty.

Now, there are some out there who would point out that even if Jim was set-up, that what he did was illegal, and he should have known the consequences.  That Jim was inclined to deal drugs, and the only thing stopping him was lack of opportunity to do so.  And there may be a kernel of truth to that.  The Police arrest a person only for the crimes they can detect.  In many cases, criminals commit numbers of crimes that they can never be arrested for, and the crime they are eventually charged with is just the one that the Police can detect and bring charges for.

And in Jim's case, this is true.  Jim has sold small quantities of pot, of course.  And like any good pot smoker, he has gotten into small petty crimes.  For example, don't ask him where the over sized, ill-fitting rims on his clapped-out Honda Civic came from.  The reason they rub the fenders is that they were not meant to fit his car in the first place.  They actually belong to someone else. Yes, they are stolen.

So Jim is a bad guy.  Well, not really.  Like most pot smokers, he is just annoying.  But does annoying equate to 15 years in jail?  

In his case, it does.  And off to jail goes Jim.

Now, in many cases, the Jims of the world don't end up serving their entire sentences, but instead do get parole.  And in many cases, they serve their sentences in minimum-security facilities.  I visited one such facility in Arizona once (for a Patent case, oddly enough) and most of the prisoners were like Jim, or were sex offenders or people within 6 months of parole. It wasn't a "hard core" prison, but a prison is a prison, nevertheless.

And Jim was lucky in that regard.  In some States, young men like Jim are tossed into the general prison population with hardened criminals.  And in some prisons, drugs are more readily available than on the outside.  And young men like Jim end up sexually abused in short order, exposed to more serious drug use, and possibly HIV.  Jim might not have been a major criminal when he went to jail, but he will leave jail with few other options - and criminal training.  And upon release, Jim will have little reason to want to be a "productive member of society" either.

Jim serves a number of years.  His Mother comes to visit him every week.  She and his Dad now live in an Apartment and don't winter in Florida anymore.  Jim's Mom has taken a part-time job.  Several years into his sentence, Jim's Father dies of a heart attack, and Jim is allowed to leave prison for the funeral.  It is all very sad.
Jim is fortunate that he is allowed parole after several years.  He is "only" 30 now, and has a chance to get his life back on track.

As a convicted felon, Jim will have a hard time getting any jobs - even pizza deliveryman.  The pizza shop doesn't want to be sued if a customer should accuse Jim of improprieties.  Hiring a convicted felon is one way to get your insurance canceled.

Jim tries as hard as he can, but realizes what opportunities he squandered when he was 20 - smoking pot and ditching college.  If only he could have done a few things differently.  We all have regrets in life, but few of us have regrets like Jim does.

So, what can you do to avoid this deadly trap?  Well, to be sure, if you are going to be a stoner, don't fall for stupid Detective tricks like Jim did.  You'd be surprised how old this gag is (a friend of mine was tricked into it back in 1978) and yet Cops still use it today - and it works.  You smoke pot, you do stupid things, it is inevitable.  You did watch the Harold and Kumar movies, right?

But of course, not sitting in your parent's basement and smoking pot all day long is probably a better idea.  But you can't convince a "Po-Thead" of that.  In fact, you can't convince them of much, except perhaps to have another bong hit.

It also pays to understand the difference in severity of various drug crimes.   Mere possession of small amounts of pot, which is what Jim is guilty of most of the time, is usually a misdemeanor, and while a hassle is hardly a life-changing event.  Selling drugs, however, is a whole different level of severity - a Felony - and a very serious charge.  Stepping over that line from user to dealer is not a small step, but rather a leap off a cliff, from a legal point of view.

If you are a parent, realize that having a stoner "bounce-back" son living in your home can have very serious consequences to both you and him.  It is not healthy to coddle a young adult this way and enable a very self-destructive lifestyle.  Examine the sick reasons you are doing this and change your course before it is too late - for both your sakes.  25-year-old men should not be living in your basement.

And think hard before you make a knee-jerk reaction to "Law and Order" drumbeats.  Is the candidate promising to "lock everyone up" really the best choice?  Or is he playing on your Fears to Bait you?

To be sure, the fallout from Mandatory Minimum Sentencing is starting to be felt and many are questioning the effectiveness of this technique in the "War on Drugs".  But as some have pointed out, many of the folks convicted under these "mandatory minimum" sentencing laws are not just casual pot smokers or small-time dealers, but actually career criminals.  For every Jim convicted under such laws, there are maybe 2-3 people convicted, who really should be locked up.

But again, as I note time and again in this blog, regardless of political issues, you have to take responsibility for your own life.  You can rail about the "unfairness" of it all (and pot smokers will do so, at length, whether you want them to or not) but the bottom line is that life is chock full of unfairnesses, and paralyzing yourself by refusing to take action or responsibility on the grounds that it is not possible until some political change occurs, is utter nonsense.  Jim didn't have to try to sell Ecstasy, but he did.  He has to take responsibility for his actions, even if the laws are "unfair" and the Police "entrapped" him.

And it is sad to me, as a Lawyer, so see this sort of thing happening to the Jims of the world.  Young middle-class white kids from "good" families with educational and career opportunities, squandering it all.  I can see an alternate universe, where a different Jim graduates from college, and marries his girlfriend, - instead of grousing that she is a "bitch" - and settles down with a steady job and two kids.  That Jim is happy.

And of course, many others would point out that what is happening to Jim seems to many to be a travesty of Justice only because he is WHITE, and that for every Jim in the world today, there are 10, 20, or maybe 100 Jeromes, from a different part of town, who are serving longer sentences than Jim, who don't have access to expensive Lawyers, and for whom no one feels sorry for.  And what Jerome is being jailed for, is dealing pot to the Jims of the world.

And yea, that is probably the real injustice right there.

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