"On the plains of Oklahoma, with a windshield sunset in your eyes like a watercolor painted sky, you'd think heavens doors have opened."
Fly Over States

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Alone at Christmas time?

Husband was called out of town on an emergency on Sunday and we aren't sure he'll make it home for Christmas. Today, I received flowers from him - what a sweetie. He frequently gets me white lilies because that was our wedding flower. This has been a painful Christmas season without Jezebel and his absence has made it even more difficult. It hasn't been any picnic for him, either! Happily, it looks good for him to start heading home, perhaps, tomorrow. Travel is supposed to be very difficult so he could end up getting stuck someplace en route. We aren't out of the woods, yet. I sure feel sorry for all those travelers out there who have been stranded for days. I hope he is back for Christmas - and I would love it if he were back soon enough to drive around and look at Christmas lights. I guess I could drive around with Evelyn but that seems a little pathetic.

I've been thinking about crime and punishment, lately. Sometimes, my light hearted thoughts are just so refreshing.

I work in an area near the point where several counties meet. We are in a densely populated area near one large metropolis and several smaller cities. In addition, there are multiple small towns scattered about. The point is, you can't throw a rock without hitting a court house.

Most of these municipalities have their own Juvenile and Family Court which include their own judges and prosecutors. Most have their own police forces and/or sheriff's departments. They have separate social service departments. On a given day, it is not unheard of for me to be in court in three jurisdictions (although I have been working diligently to restrict my practice to just one). One day, I actually appeared in four courthouses and I don't care to repeat that adventure.

One of the most significant things that influences how a relatively minor crime is prosecuted (think domestic violence, petty theft, most juvenile cases) is where it takes place and, to a lessor extent, which prosecutor takes up the case.

As I said, I work in four jurisdictions, call them "Jurisdiction Hug-and-Kiss," "Jurisdiction Not-in-My-Town, "Jurisdiction Small Town" and "Jurisdiction Country Life."

Jurisdiction Hug-and-Kiss has been dealing with a large volume of crime for many years. It has a large staff of overworked, jaded prosecutors and five wonderful family judges. The throngs of people in the hallways and waiting areas are so thick you can barely walk from one courtroom to another. On the day of trial, the accused, or their lawyers, line up for up to four hours just to speak to a prosecutor about their case about a possible plea. That doesn't leave much time for trials.

Plea bargains are the only thing that keeps the system from grinding to a halt. Domestic batteries, simple assaults, shop lifting, forgery, bad checks, car theft, vandalism, burglary - all these things rarely go to trial. Depending on the volume of petty crimes on a given day (meaning was there a rock concern at the local amphitheatre over the weekend?), someone can serve thirty days (half off for good behavior) or walk out the door with a stern warning. Juveniles are typically placed on probation and ordered to perform community service, make restitution, and come back in a year to dismiss the charge or have it reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor. No fuss, no muss.

I've simplified the process but that is the gist of it.

Where these criminals get stung is that once they are placed on probation, if they screw up, it is tons easier to put them away. It amounts to getting a first bite of the apple and that is how Jurisdiction Hug-and-Kiss keeps its doors open.

Jurisdiction Not-in-My-Town has relatively recently begun a population explosion as people move where housing is a bit more affordable. It has three family court judges and a zealous team of prosecutors who are rapidly becoming overwhelmed with the increase in crime and the increase in violent crime. They are only just beginning to get the criminal activity that their more densely populated sisters have been plagued with for years. Their response is to be extremely rigid and punitive. The attitude is that these thugs are not going to be bringing that garbage to their town!

In this jurisdiction, there are two types of kids - those charged and guilty, and those not charged who probably got away with something. Many of the prosecutors see it as their personal mandate from on high to try to stem the tide of violence and criminality that seems to be flowing from the cities to the smaller towns. Jurisdiction Not-in-My-Town will grind to a pulp any punk who dares to break its laws. They do not offer plea bargains unless the state's case is so weak that they simply aren't sure they can win, and even then, they will pile on the charges and add on felonies in an effort to bluff suspects into accepting a plea.

They will not, as a matter of policy, go to trial before a judge in adult felony cases. They force every adult defendant to face a jury with its attendant costs and risks.

They are just as tough with kids. I once actually had to go to trial over an indecent exposure charge brought against a ten year old boy whose neighbor spotted him urinating in public (his sister was hogging the only bathroom and he urinated out his bedroom window at 6:00 a.m.). The prosecutor wanted him labeled a sex offender and claimed he was "wagging his privates" in public out of some prurient intent. Even the crotchety old neighbor who happened outside just at that time to feed her cat didn't think that was going on. She just thought he was ill bred. Fortunately, the child looked younger than his age and even the Judge was taken aback at the prosecutor's zealousness.

I know many defense attorneys who simply will not practice in this jurisdiction because they have their head handed to them every time they show up to court. They don't want or need the aggravation of having to deal with a system so ruthlessly stacked against the accused. I don't practice criminal law but I would be one of the ones who would refuse to take cases in this jurisdiction. The citizens of this jurisdiction take a great deal of pride in their take no prisoners approach. As one lawyer once told me - if someone commits a crime in Jurisdiction Not-In-My-Town, you already know that they are stupid on top of being criminal. So, I suppose the prosecution has succeeded to a certain extent in getting the word out that crime will not be tolerated, at least for the smart and self disciplined crooks.

The point is, for the same crime, a child will get the book thrown at him in Jurisdiction Not-in-my-Town but a cookie in Jurisdiction Kiss-and-Hug.

"Jurisdiction Small Town" has one judge and not a lot of crime. Its population is compact, it is a college town with an educated population whose neighborhoods tend to fall within the city limits. It is surrounded by larger jurisdictions who take on most of the shady business that tends to erupt from the apartment complexes and the college bar district that just happen to fall outside the city limits. The Judge is fatherly and fair, the prosecutors are mellow, and not much happens there. Think Andy Griffith. The tax base is strong which allows the courts to have special programs dealing with drug and alcohol related crimes.

"Jurisdiction Country Life" has two judges and a young, dedicated prosecution team. Because the population is far less dense, they have time to discuss the cases with the lawyers and the victims, they talk to the parents of the wayward children, they are consistent, tough and fair. They can afford to be. There is more poverty and ignorance than you find in Jurisdiction Small Town because the jurisdiction includes a lot of people of limited means and education. The social services department is active and many of the cases are the direct result of poverty. There are also quite a few drug crimes due to the prevalence of meth labs and your garden variety marijuana farmer who raises pot as a side line. The juvenile cases, unlike many of the scary crimes that seem to plague the more urban areas, tend to fall into your traditional cow tipping or mail box bashing categories.

I frequently end up having to stay there all day because it takes that long to get through the docket. Add a bit more crime or more violent crime and all that will change. There is no place to put another judge and they'd need more prosecutors to handle additional cases at the current level.

We recently had a horrible case in Jurisdiction Hug-and-Kiss that tragically demonstrates what can happen with a revolving door jurisdiction. A teenager with repeated burglary convictions yet again broke into a residence during the day, apparently expecting no one to be home and hoping to find some nice Christmas loot. He picked the home of some classmates, one of whom had graduated and gone away to college. He was not a friend and there was no reason for him to be in the home. The woman of the house was an active volunteer at the school and known, at least by sight, to most of the students. Horribly, the college student was home for Christmas break, sleeping on the couch. The young burglar shot and killed the college student, apparently out of fear that he would be be able to identify him. What made it even worse was that the mother came home while the killer was still in the house. The killer shot her, too, before fleeing with trinkets. A younger son discovered his murdered family when he came home from school.

The killer - or should I say alleged killer - was quickly apprehended after being seen by multiple witnesses. I understand he confessed to being in the home and has been placed there by forensic evidence. He also apparently had items from the home in his possession.

The news is already reporting the outcry at the leniency of Jurisdiction Hug-and-Kiss. There will be much weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth and people will want to blame the prosecutors, the probation officers, the court system, the judges and the defense counsel. I understand all that. What I don't understand is how to fix the problem with the resources at hand. I honestly believe you could triple the number of staff and still not be able to have the level of oversight you have available even in the surrounding jurisdictions - most of which don't have the same types of violent crime we see in the denser populations. And even those more rural jurisdictions are struggling to keep up. The problem is not the overwhelmed court system, in my opinion. This is a cultural/societal/familial problem. Perhaps it is a spiritual problem. I mean, burglarizing is one thing. Killing a family simply to avoid being identified is another. How does anyone predict that sort of vicious behavior based on a track record of petty thievery?

BTW - I have absolutely no connection to that case, nor do I know of any lawyers who have any connection.

I have no answers.


Paula said...

Penny, I hope the hubby makes it home soon, and that you both, and Evelyn, are able to have a merry Christmas.


Holee said...

When my son was killed in Philadelphia and I got "Let them go Lisa" for a Judge I had to put up a fight myself since the victim has no rights other then being proof that a crime happened. Looking back on the whole thing I wouldn't want to be a Judge, not knowing the victim or the criminal, in any court room for adults or children.

In our case the criminal got to pick by jury or by Judge and picked Judge just by her record. He forgot to consider me. I knew the only way to "fix" our court procedure was to make the victim & criminal known so I spent everyday for a year visiting the many DA's in Philly. Why? Because I thought it was unreal to judge both men without knowing who each had been for 27 years. Starting out at 10 being arrested for stealing, living off welfare, being on drugs, growing out of teens into more violent crimes against an educated working man who gave to the community and had no crimes chalked up against him would not be seen because juvie records are sealed in Pa. & cannot be used in an adult trial.

DA's do not have time in large cities to do the research on each offender. They only have time to make a case on the facts connected to the crime and usually don't get the case until a month before the hearing.

If anyone would have had the time to consider who this guy was growing into when this guy was 12,with 8 arrest in 2 years, he might have been locked up for most of his life before he killed.

Families have to get past the shock of the crime and become active in the case. That also goes for kids & adults who may be innocent. Family always counts to Judges and the more that show up in court can make the ruling go the right way.

I am sorry you may be alone for the holiday, but at least Evelyn has stepped up to her new roll and has become more of a devoted friend. I would pack her in the car and go look at lights!

Lisa said...

"This is a cultural/societal/familial problem. Perhaps it is a spiritual problem"
All of the above..... Michelle Obama said we need to do away with traditions and make new traditions. No we need to go back to the old ways of America... Children were born in families, mothers stayed home and raised the children.. Families had some spiritualism... Schools were allowed to discipline...
We had all of the above when we were growing up.. Plus if our parents were called by the school or another parent and told we misbehaved we were lucky if we could sit down for days... I'm so tired of hearing that it's because of poverty that we have gangs and crime... There's no reason for poverty in America except for laziness... Many would rather sit back and put their hand out and let the government take care of them then get a job.
Parenting is a big responsibility it should be required that you have a license to have kids...
I also think if you live on welfare then you can't have more then 2 kids.

Ok I'm going to shut up I could go on but I won't...
Hope your hubby makes it home for Christmas... Take Evelyn for a drive to look at light.. (I had to laugh when you said it seems a little pathetic and then looked at Evelyn's face. It's like's looking at you and saying who's pathetic?)

Merry Christmas..

Evelyn aka Starfishy said...

I have to mull over some of your posts for a week or so before coming up with a comment. I've been thinking about this post. Finally I figured that if the wrong-do-er is from the easy town and doesn't get punished - and then does something terribly wrong, everyone will blame the lax system. But then again - if a non-violet kid is seriously punished and sent somewhere with violet people - and then gets out and commits a violent crime - well then, everyone will blame the hard town for being so harsh and exposing "poor Johnny" to such hard core criminals in the first place. Dammed if you do, dammed if you don't - I guess. All that being said, I am the step-parent of a young man in jail for 5-7 years for a crime that he says he did not commit. He was always so gung-ho USA and now he is really questioning the system. There are no easy answers and every family and every person has their own story, I am sure.
Cheers! - Evelyn