Gentle Reader, should you have read last week’s column you may recall it involved issues of how our legal system processes non-violent illegal drug users. Well, I know at least one person besides Peg read it as that person sent me an email outlining his views about my views. As I was surprised that anyone had read my article and had even taken the effort to respond to it, I carefully considered his positions. It also helped that the reader has been a good friend of mine for several years and is well informed and thoughtful on issues of public interest. Sometimes we agree; sometimes we do not. However, he, and, I hope I, always respectfully hear out the entire discussion.
To recap last week’s topic, it contained my chance encounter with a convicted drug dealer who is still on probation after doing four years in prison. He shared the details of his crime and current status on his “split” sentence with me after it came out in our generally casual discussion that I, as a trial judge, had the experience of confronting a defendant in court who had stolen my car twenty years earlier. That surreal coincidence developed as set out below.
In 1965 I had just received my honorable discharge from the United States Air Force and had moved to Indianapolis, Indiana with my wife and son. I found a job selling encyclopedias for P.F. Collier Company door to door. One of my co-workers was a young man I knew as Sam whose last name was of the three-syllable type and hard to forget. Sam and his wife were as poor as we were but he fell in love with my 1956 Ford Fairlane convertible. I had paid $350 for it but planned to replace it with a more family suitable model.
Sam implored me to sell him my car for cash with the promise he’d pay me $50 per week for seven weeks as we received our Collier paychecks, assuming of course, that we sold anything. I acquiesced, and gave him the keys and never saw the car again. The next time I saw Sam was when he appeared in front of me charged with a home burglary to which he offered to plead guilty per a deal he and his attorney had worked out with the Prosecuting Attorney.
When I read the pre-sentence investigation a dim light began to glow. In open court, in the presence of Sam’s attorney and the Prosecutor the following colloquy occurred:
Judge: “Mr. ( ), your first name is in the pre-sentence as ( ). Have you ever been known as Sam?”
Sam: “Yeah, that’s an old nickname.”
Judge: “Mr. ( ), the pre-sentence lists your residence as in the state of Oregon. Did you ever live in Indianapolis?”
Same (somewhat surprised): “Yeah, but I left there pretty quickly.”
Judge: “Mr. ( ), when you were in Indianapolis did you ever sell encyclopedias for P.F. Collier?”
Sam (really surprised): “Yeah, I did.”
Judge: “Mr. ( ), you stole my car!”
Naturally, I offered to recuse and get Sam another judge and I took a recess so Sam and his attorney could discuss the situation. But, as Sam had had about as much experience with our legal system as I had between 1965 and 1985, he just advised me that he only came to Posey County, Indiana to burglarize a home. Then he told me, “Judge, I just want to get out of your county jail and get back to prison as soon as possible.” After his attorney agreed and with the Prosecutor’s blessing, Sam got his wish.
This true story of how the system handled a defendant led the probationer I told it to to describe how his sentence had afforded him an opportunity to work and support his family versus simply serving out his entire ten-year sentence. In last week’s article I wrote approvingly of a system based more on forgiving 70 x 7 than long-term incarceration. My friend who disagreed with that approach supported his views with sound reasoning, albeit not as sufficient to persuade me.
When I prosecuted drug offenses for seven years my views were similar to my friend’s but after forty years of judging such situations, I find myself doubting the efficacy of spending $20,000 per year of taxpayer funds to house non-violent offenders. However, I do understand those who think the way I used to. I am glad I serve in a legal system and live in a country where all rational views can be fairly debated and tested; that does remain true, right? And I am glad to have friends with the fairness to discuss such matters with an open mind.