Thursday, April 02, 2009
People choose right, or wrong
By John Long
Not long ago, my teenage daughter sat through a criminal court session as part of a class she's taking on Virginia government. At the end of it, the class got to meet the bailiff for a few minutes, who gave them, in my opinion, some worthwhile advice. I wasn't there, so I'll have to paraphrase:
"Did you notice the prosecuting attorney we had today? He's pretty young, not many years older than you. And did you notice the defendants who were on trial? They were about the same age as the prosecutor, again not much older than you are.
"Now think about it. Why are they on opposite sides of the law? What accounts for the difference? I'll tell you: It's the choices they've made."
My daughter has heard that sort of pep talk from us often enough to know the consequences of good or bad choices, but I'm glad she heard it again from an authoritative source.
I started thinking about the bailiff's advice again last Sunday when I read the article in Parade magazine by Jim Webb, Virginia's senior senator. Webb has taken on prison reform as a legislative priority, and his article detailed what he thought was wrong with America's penal system. In short, he asserts, too many people in America are in prison or under some sort of post-prison supervision -- some one in every 31 adult Americans.
I'm certainly no expert on penology, but I understand Webb's concerns. I commend him for taking on an issue about which he obviously cares, but which is not likely to win him many votes. Yet something about his observations and statistical analysis troubled me. It finally hit me: Of the 2.3 million people in America's prisons, most are there not because of a systemic problem, but because of individual choices they alone made.
Sometimes it's a split-second decision; sometimes it's a lifetime of bad choices. But Webb's article seemed to skirt that reality: Most inmates are inmates because they made decisions that led them down that path. Think of this: Why are 30 out of 31 Americans not in prison? Only because we haven't been caught yet?
Hold the angry e-mails: I'll readily concede that in America's prisons are a few who through bad evidence, unreliable witnesses, racial profiling, etc. were wrongly prosecuted. (That number is inevitably much lower than those who claim to be in it.) A few others were convicted of crimes of ignorance or unawareness, not knowing they were breaking a law. Some others have mental deficiencies that make it difficult to make proper choices. Fatherlessness is a major factor, and of course no one chooses that path for themselves -- though how one responds to it is another matter.
Ultimately, it seems to me that the majority of convicts are imprisoned precisely because they deserve to be. Protecting the public and simple justice require them to pay their debt to society. Of course, Webb doesn't disagree with that premise (though he didn't mention protecting the public until the last paragraph of his article).
Webb opines, "With so many of our citizens in prison compared with the rest of the world, there are only two possibilities: Either we are home to the most evil people on Earth or we are doing something different -- and vastly counterproductive. Obviously, the answer is the latter."
I would not be so quick to dismiss the first choice. "Most evil" may be extreme, but what if the fault indeed lies within us? What if the very fabric of our public soul has become corrupted?
Which gets me back to the advice the bailiff gave my daughter's class. What will Webb's proposed prison reform do to empower the next generation to choose lifestyles that obey and respect the law? Every day, each of us has a choice: to do right or do wrong, to live this day on one side of the law or the other. Most of us -- yet not nearly enough of us -- make the better choice.
An overcrowded prison system is in a sense like a bucket under a leaky roof -- designed to mitigate the damage, but clear evidence that something is wrong. We can buy a bigger bucket. We can design a better bucket. We can purify and recycle the water we catch. We can argue about the definition of rain.
But eventually, instead of blaming the bucket, we'd better figure out why the roof is leaking in the first place.
Long, director of the Salem Museum and a history teacher at Roanoke College, is a Roanoke Times columnist.