Thursday, September 27, 2012

Go directly to jail

Do not pass go.

Do not collect $200.

MacGyver ran for seven seasons on ABC (and several foreign networks) from 1985 through 1992. MacGyver was a troubleshooter for the fictional Phoenix Foundation. Whenever possible, he used non-violent solutions to the problems at hand, and he refused to carry a gun. He frequently solved complex problems with everyday materials that he found at hand, along with his ever-present duct tape and Swiss Army knife.

Both of our kids were in high school when the series was on television, and science teachers frequently used some of the tricks that they saw on TV as tools to teach their students about science.

One of those tricks was the “MacGyver bomb”. To make one, all you needed was an empty two liter soda bottle, some aluminum foil, and some liquid drain cleaner. If you crumbled up small bits of aluminum foil, put them in the bottom of the empty soda bottle, added an inch or two of drain cleaner, closed the top, and waited for about a minute, you’d have a nice little explosion.

Our son learned how to make one in HIS science class, and for a short time afterwards, he and his friends blew off a few in front of our house in Aurora.

If you’ve ever seen the movie, “Dumb and Dumber”, you’ll appreciate the fact that young men occasionally decide to make choices that aren’t very smart. Either Brian or his friend Paul (also known as Lee) reasoned that if the bomb was fun to listen to during the middle of the day, it would clearly be AWESOME to put one in someone’s mailbox at 3:00 in the morning.

So they did.

At 3:00 in the morning, there aren’t a lot of people driving around, but the milk drivers from Oberweis dairy in Aurora, Illinois are already starting to make their rounds. One of the Oberweis drivers witnessed Brian and Paul walking away from a now-shattered mailbox, and called Aurora’s finest.

At 4:00 in the morning, I heard loud voices in the kitchen downstairs, so went downstairs to yell at Brian and his friend. In addition to Brian and Paul, a policeman from the city was also in the kitchen, and he explained to me what Brian and Paul had done.

Brian and Paul spent the rest of the day here:

From the city jail, Brian and Paul were transported to the DuPage County government center to face charges. Because the judge had heard the word “bomb” and “mail box”, he made the assumption that the two young men had used a genuine explosive device to blow up one of the large mail boxes owned by the U.S. Postal Service. Since destroying one of those big guys is a Federal offense (and a felony), the charges brought against the two were two class A misdemeanors, and a felony charge. Somehow, one or both of them managed to convince the judge of the true nature of their offense, and the felony charge, and one of the misdemeanor charges, were dropped. Each of them was required to replace the homeowner’s mailbox, pay a $250 fine, and do 1000 hours of community service.

Neither Brian or Paul had any further scrapes with the authorities, and the mailbox incident, 18 years in the past, has long since been forgotten.

Until this week.

Brian recently passed the Illinois state examination to be a real estate leasing agent in Chicago. He had successful interviews with at least 4 companies, and finally chose to work for the largest, and oldest, leasing company in the city.

As part of the hiring practice, of course, the company did a background check on Brian. When the human resources department found a felony on Brian’s record, they naturally were concerned, and contacted Brian’s boss, who then had a “conversation” with Brian.

Due to today’s job market, anyone with a felony on their record wouldn’t even be granted an interview with many employers. Fortunately, Brian’s new employer gave him an opportunity to explain his crime. Yesterday, he drove out to the DuPage Government center and obtained copies of the court case, which showed that the felony charge was dropped EIGHTEEN YEARS AGO. He is meeting with the H.R. department again this morning, and does not anticipate any further problems .

During our phone conversation yesterday, though, both of us had the same thought. How many other people aren’t being hired because of mistake in judgment years ago that they have long since forgotten about? That also may explain, in part, the gang problem that Chicago and most other cities have. If you can’t get a decent job because of a youthful indiscretion , you are frequently forced to a life of crime to support yourself and your family.

The United States has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world, with roughly 2.4 million people behind bars. Of that total, 1.4 million are locked up for non-violent crimes, such as the possession of marijuana. Depending on the state, it costs somewhere between $18,000 to $31,000 a year to keep each of those people in prison, which means that we (as a society) are spending between 43 and 74 BILLION dollars on our prison expenses every 365 days.

I'm not doubting that the 1.000,000 violent criminals that are currently in our prisons should continue to be imprisoned, but I believe that our society needs to be a lot smarter about where we spend our scarce resources, and I'm not convinced that being "tough on crime" is always the right answer ESPECIALLY since it enriches the coffers of the Corrections Corporation of America and the politicians it supports.

In October 2010, the SB 1070 bill, which Arizona Senate President Russell Pearce sponsored in the legislature, came under criticism for benefiting private prison companies. Most of the language of the bill had been written as model legislation at a December 2009 meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), where Pearce was joined as an attendee by officials of the company Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). CCA "executives believe immigrant detention is their next big market" according to National Public Radio.

In order to maintain its "cash cow", CCA spends a lot of money on lobbying. From 1999 through 2009, the company spent $18,000,000 on lobbying expenses. In view of the fact that the company had a net profit of $1.7 billion in 2010, it certainly was money well spent. Another private prison company, The Geo Group, made a net profit of $1.2 billion the same year.

lock 'em up and throw away the key?

What does it take to become a felon these days? Unfortunately, not much.

If you’re a baby boomer, you’ve probably tried marijuana at some point in your life. Even former President Bill Clinton has admitted to its use. Fortunately, though, he never inhaled any of the nasty weed.

Penalties for marijuana possession vary widely by state. In some states, possession of as little as ¾ of an ounce will make you a felon (Florida), but it takes a full kilogram to be considered a felon in Alabama. Currently, 14 states have decriminalized the possession of minor amounts of marijuana.

Forty years ago, one of my co-workers gave me a cigar-sized “joint”, which I smoked in one of our honeymoon cottages in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I DID inhale, but don’t remember feeling much effect from it, or even enjoying it that much. If one of the local gendarmes had caught me, I would have been tagged a felon, since 20 grams is all it takes in Michigan to make possession a heinous crime.

As Arlo Guthrie discovered years ago, while sitting on the Group W bench in New York City, even littering and disturbing the peace can keep you out of the Army, but I decided that joining the Minnesota National Guard was a more practical solution.

You’ve just read over 1000 words, so what kind of a picture does that leave you with?

The best answer that I can give you is this:

Brian’s heart-pounding, hyper-ventilating, experience at his new job will turn out to be just fine, but it provides some important lessons for all of us:

1) The tough on crime approach isn’t always the best solution. Although Sheriff Joe may think that pink underwear and tents for inmates are the best way to prevent crime, the facts don’t support his approach. From 2002 through 2009, violent crime has DECREASED in all Arizona police jurisdictions - except in Maricopa County. Sheriff Arpaio’s district has seen a 58% INCREASE in violent crime since 2002. To show that his priorities are in the right place, though, the good sheriff sent a deputy to Hawaii earlier this year to verify President Obamas’s birth certificate. He is now 80 years old, and he’s running for re-election.

2) Possession of marijuana is illegal in most of the countries of the world, but a handful of them have decriminalized the possession of minor amounts, as have 14 states in the United States. You can find ample reasons NOT to make drugs of all types legal, but even Forbes magazine feels that it’s time to “end the war on drugs” in America. After all, the Volstead Act produced some unintended consequences, to the delight of a guy named “Scarface”.

3) Even if your “ghosts in the closet” happened a long time ago, you can never tell when they’ll come back to haunt you. In Brian’s case, he was able to resolve his crisis, but he went through some very anxious moments in the meantime. If you’ve had ANY problems with the law in your past, go to the courthouse to review your records. You may be able to correct a problem that you had long since forgotten about before it causes problems for you in the future.

To quote American author Flannery O’Connor, the life you save may be your own.

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