Tuesday, August 13, 2013
In Sunday’s New York Times, Nicholas Kristof tells a story that capsulizes the insanity of the ongoing and widespread scandal of prosecutorial overzealousness, crushing mandatory minimum sentences, excessive incarceration, and the general decline of true justice in our criminal justice system: Edward Young, a husband and father of four, who had been convicted of non-violent property crimes in his youth, was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison for inadvertently taking possession of seven shotgun shells when assisting the next-door neighbor in inventorying her property after her husband died.
Here's an excerpt from Mr. Kristof’s column, the rest of which is available here:
[A] neighbor died, and his widow, Neva Mumpower, asked Young to help sell her husband’s belongings. He later found, mixed in among them, seven shotgun shells, and he put them aside so that his children wouldn’t find them. . . .
The United States attorney [for the Eastern District of Tennessee], William Killian, went after Young — even though none of Young’s past crimes involved a gun, even though Young had no shotgun or other weapon to go with the seven shells, and even though, by all accounts, he had no idea that he was violating the law when he helped Mrs. Mumpower sell her husband’s belongings.
In May, a federal judge, acknowledging that the case was Dickensian but saying that he had no leeway under the law, sentenced Young to serve a minimum of 15 years in federal prison. . . .
Young is particularly close to his children, ages 6 to 16. After back problems and rheumatoid arthritis left him disabled, he was a stay-at-home dad while his wife worked in a doctor’s office. When the judge announced the sentence, the children all burst into tears.
One more interrupted life and one more dismantled family, for no rational purpose or reason other than because a prosecutor can get a conviction and a long sentence. The result of these practices is hundreds of thousands of damaged or destroyed lives in this country, both the lives of the men (mostly) and women convicted of non-violent crimes who languish in prison for lengthy terms and the lives of their spouses and children who suffer the trauma of seeing loved ones stolen away for years and lose the support, emotional and financial, of that person. Talk about a policy that offends "family values"!
For those like me who are on the conservative end of the political spectrum, we should be ashamed of the way in which the politicians that we support have avoided serious engagement with the problem of crime and building a healthy society by advocating and implementing a criminal justice system that constantly ratchets up prison sentences. Yes, we should be tough on crime, especially violent crime, but justice must be tempered with mercy or at least common-sense appreciation of the greater harm to young men and women who grow up without parents because they have been shipped off to remote prisons for petty and non-violent offenses.
And those on the political left are not off the hook. While the scourge of mandatory minimum sentences and no-tolerance prosecute-to-the-limit policies may have originated primarily with conservatives, liberals have been oh so quick to demonstrate their tough-on-crime bona-fides by voting for and implementing the same policies. Notably, the prosecution of Edward Young for innocent possession of seven shot gun shells and subjecting him to a 15-year prison sentence was the work of United States Attorney William Killian, a long-time Democrat who was appointed by President Obama. Attorney General Holder may have announced a new policy for federal prosecutors to sidestep mandatory minimums for some crimes, but apparently the memo came too late for Mr. Young.
In sum, we are all complicit in this prosecute-the-highest-charge and imprison-to-the-max ethos that is undermining social justice and dragging down a generation of Americans.
When election season comes upon us again in just a few more months, be sure to ask the candidates what they think about the United States having the distinction of having the highest proportion of prisoners in the entire world (here). And ask what they intend to do about it.
Whether this is framed as a moral question, which we as Catholics in the legal system must confront, or an economic question, given the huge financial costs of building prisons and housing prisoner, we should not accept the same pablum and unthinking tough on crime rhetoric from those who are entrusted with setting criminal justice policy in this country.