NO LONGER BEHIND BARS BUT STILL IN PRISON

Stop whining about criminals becoming repeat offenders. If you don’t want to take steps to change the laws don’t look down your nose at the high crime neighborhood in your community. It could be argued that it is good for business. As things are set up now, the process is postured to encourage felons to become repeat offenders and people with “legitimate businesses” benefit from the status quo. You may ask,”What in the world are you talking about?” Let me explain how things work. [The following article is not intended to address issues related to individuals that have been convicted of sex crimes. Criminal activity of this nature is considered outside of the scope of my comments here. Since many crimes are rooted in dependency behaviors, the comments posted here are pertinent to the issues of addiction.]

THREATS FEAR AND INTIMIDATION 
http://www.flickr.com/photos/12993556@N05/5787604219/

“I was in prison and you came to Me.” (Matthew 25:36.)

I live in Oregon. If you live in a state like Oregon that uses plea deals to streamline the process of prosecuting criminals, then you better think things through (Alaska has banned the use of plea deals). When a person commits a crime and after investigation of the crime is completed, he will be pressured into signing a plea deal. In order to pressure the culprit into signing, the district attorney’s office will pile on more and more charges. The D.A. will look for any actions taken by the accused that can be potentially interpreted as violations of the law. The perpetrator will be offered a reduction of charges if he accepts the plea deal. If he chooses to face the charges in court, he will run the risk of being found guilty on all charges and be punished for each infraction of the law. He will be coerced into signing for the lesser charges because of the threat of being found guilty of a greater crime with a more significant penalty. The system works through threat and intimidation.

The accused will have a court appointed attorney, but for all practical purposes his court appointed attorney may only provide minimal legal services. In fact, more times than not the court appointed attorney works to lead his client into signing the plea deal. They aren’t making too much but they get paid even if their client signs a plea deal. The defense lawyer probably won’t remember his client’s name in a week, but he will collect his fee and his client will be required to ultimately pay the county back for the court appointed attorney’s services.

I have trouble seeing that the principle that a person is innocent until proven guilty is protected by the present plea deal system as is practiced so broadly in the United States. It is a certainty that a person who isn’t guilty will be pressured into accepting the district attorney’s offer. Without adequate legal representation an innocent man or woman would be tempted to sign a plea even if he knows he’s innocent. A district attorney with all of the trappings of his office and having the cooperation of other law enforcement officials, will appear to be a formidable opponent. In addition, the authorities will be faced with the moral dilemma of using all available evidence and the severest charges to intimidate. The D.A. will use this tactic even if he doesn’t have the expectation that he could prove the charges in court or the time to develop each charge in a trial. For these reasons, the plea deal system can easily prey upon the uneducated and poor.

The plea deal system has arisen in order to reduce the number of cases that require a trial before a judge. I was told by a judge that the plea deal system is essential. He said that half of the cases must be settled through the plea deal system. He observed that without plea deals there wouldn’t be enough judges to preside over all of the cases in the county in which I live. This system isn’t in place because it is good, it is in place because it is cheaper.

If lawyers didn’t encourage clients to sign plea deals, the courts would collapse under the volume of court cases. You wouldn’t be able to find a courtroom that could handle the occasional law suit where the lawyers make their real money. (Since street criminals typically don’t read articles like this, airing these issues in a public forum doesn’t pose a big threat to the status quo. You will forgive me if I just pity the pour soul for making wrong choices, and grieve over his inability to anticipate all of the pitfalls that lie ahead as he passes through the maze of our legal system.)

You would think that our highest priority in America would be a criminal justice system that punishes the guilty and that would prepare the offenders to reenter society when they have served their sentences. We have ended up with a system that appears to have as its highest priority to extract as much revenue as possible for people in various professions. Certainly our legal system serves to protect the innocent and punish the guilty. My comment is about the highest priority. Plea deals serve to free up the courts and provide more room for lawsuits where a lawyer will reel in from thirty to fifty percent of an award from a lawsuit that he has litigated.

The plea deal system doesn’t make society safer, instead it has the opposite effect. My point is that the plea deal system works to increase the likelihood that a person committing a crime will become a repeat offender. The system cannot distinguish between individuals who are unrepentant about their crimes and the individuals who are trying to make a fresh start.

The formula of penalties piled one on top of another with: jail time, heavy fines, limited work opportunities, few desirable housing situations lead to a sense of hopelessness. There is a sense of having no voice or potential for getting free from the past. There may have been risks but the criminal sees a perverse hope in criminal activity—it is what he understands and that with which he is familiar. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that under these circumstances many become repeat offenders.

I am not some whacked out drug fiend or hippie type. I was ordained in an evangelical denomination, and I am in my 35th year of ministry. I’ve never had a drink of alcohol, smoked a cigarette, or used any illegal drug. (I’m not trying to impress you with these facts. I am just trying to give you my perspective.) None of my family members have ever been accused of a felony, and I have traditional views on crime and punishment. All I have to say is that we have ended up with a system that in my opinion increases the likelihood of a felon becoming a repeat offender. Rather than giving a person a clear path for becoming a law abiding citizen, it becomes a path with many setbacks and pitfalls. As things exist now, felons can be hindered from getting their lives back on track and are marked for life with no hope of overcoming their past. I am painfully familiar with the con artist who seeks to garner sympathy and support only to exploit the ones who have helped him, but there are people who want to get out of the legal ditch into which they have stumbled.

Several months ago I was involved in a conversation with an officer who works in a youth correctional facility in a different county. I knew he’d only been working as a corrections officer for about a year and a half. I asked him if he had much job security. He said, “You never run out of stupid.” His point was that he has job security since there are always more kids doing dumb things. But the system itself is dumb. It seems we never run out of stupid when it comes to writing more and more laws that will rob a man of hope and increase the likelihood of him becoming a repeat offender.

WHACK-A-MOLE
 
Remember the game that children play down at the pizza parlor?

The System Plays Whack-A-Mole

Now I come to the main portion of this airing of the problem that I call the “whack-a-mole” routine. You remember the game that children play down at the pizza parlor? The person playing the game stands in front of the whack-a-mole game machine. A mechanical mole sticks its head up out of one of five or six openings. In order to score points, the contestant whacks as many moles on the head as possible. The object is to score points by whacking a mole on the head before it retreats back into its hole. This is the picture that I have of our legal system. When a felon tries to make some headway he is beaten down. He tries again, but he is beaten down by another thing. This is the practical outcome of our system of laws that were established to punish the guilty and protect our society. Even if the lawbreaker has paid all of his fines and fulfilled all of the obligations established by the court, there may be little practical benefit.

A few weeks ago, I was trying to start a conversation with a second corrections officer from another facility. I was trying to bait him about the injustices that I believe are in the system. His response was, “The system is corrupt.” My comments were not accusatory, and I was only trying to draw him into a conversation yet his response was repeated three different times, “The system is corrupt.” This is the point that you must recognize: “the system is corrupt.”

A man that I met nine months ago completed all the court required in response to his drug conviction from three years ago. He did a week in jail and his sentence resulted in a kind of virtual house arrest. Traveling out of state and out of the county was considered a violation of his parole so he stayed home. He reported to his parole officer faithfully for the last three years, paid all of his fines, and completed the diversion component that the court required. When he applied to have his record expunged, the D.A. sent a young lawyer to speak against expungement because he had two felonies.

The judge and the assistant from the D.A.’s office both seemed rather new to the whole process. I couldn’t help but wonder whether both judge and the assistant had been handed this task because no one else had the heart to face the twelve felons who appeared for the hearing. The judge was given the grievous task to tell all of these felons that there would be no relief until ten years had passed or maybe ever. The judge didn’t believe that she could exercise any discretion in each of these cases. (The legal maneuver to deal with this problem is to get the convictions reduced from felonies to misdemeanors. However, neither the judge or lawyer let these poor folks know what was the appropriate step. My hunch is that the judge and the lawyer were unaware of this point of Oregon’s laws.)

Let me explain how the law calculates two felonies in this situation. My friend’s first felony was his drug conviction and the second was endangering his mother (who lived with him) by his use of drugs in his home. These felonies pertained to the same event, but he had signed a plea deal that made him guilty of two crimes. If you have two felonies, Oregon law states that your record cannot be expunged for ten years even if it involved the same event. Double jeopardy doesn’t apply in this situation because there is more than one charge and conviction. They are considered two separate crimes, but from the same event. In ten years this man will be retired and on social security. Under these circumstances there appeared to be no real incentive for him to pay his fines but he did. There wasn’t any reason to be diligent and to do what the court required at sentencing, but he wanted to make things right.

Forgive me, but I don’t understand how the man’s crime could warrant no more than a few days in jail and yet it couldn’t be expunged. It seems ridiculous to me that he can now visit his mother and isn’t considered a threat. I don’t get the fact that he can work (if he can find work) and travel all over town and isn’t considered a threat to the community. In addition since his seven days in jail, he and his girlfriend fought to get her two teenage children back from children’s services. Oregon thought he was sufficiently fit to adopt her two teenagers, but because of his conviction, he isn’t deemed fit to hold a good job even if he has all of the necessary skills. In spite of his responsibilities, the inconsistencies in the law have become a snare. He can raise children, but he can’t be considered for a career that would provide for his family. Like a leper from Bible times, the felon must warn prospective employers, landlords, and all that pass by that he is unclean.

Job opportunities for people that have done jail time are scarce. Even if you were qualified for a technical position before, now prospective employers won’t even consider your application no matter how qualified you are. At my friend’s hearing, the first case that was considered involved a young woman who similarly had two felonies. When she was told that the District Attorney’s office opposed the expungement of her record for the same reason she was devastated. Her voice cracked when she said, “What am I supposed to do? I can’t get a job.” Many in the criminal system draw the same conclusion and then think: “I’ll do what I know best. I might as well sell drugs, or I might as well run a scam,” etc.

[UPDATE: As is stated above my friend’s record couldn’t be expunged because of a technicality. In the days that followed he and his girlfriend then sent brief letters asking that their crimes be reduced from felonies to misdemeanors. His felony can’t be expunged but it can be reduced. Her record has now been changed by a court order by a judge, but the judge lost my friend’s letter to the court. He had to send a second letter yesterday and his charges more than likely will be reduced if they don’t lose the letter again. After his sentence is reduced it can then be expunged. Why couldn’t the judge at the hearing last Spring have reduced the crimes from felonies to misdemeanors?]

FELONS ARE GOOD FOR BUSINESS
 
Let me explain how a high crime neighborhood is good for the economy and what are called “legitimate businesses.” Ironically, a law school that provides lawyers for our community has much property in and adjacent to “felony flats.” “Felony flats” is the name that is used to identify the neighborhood where many who have been convicted of crimes are forced to live. They are forced by their circumstances to live there once they have been released from jail. The state has created this situation in order to save money and reduce the number of people in prison. It is where I work and where my church ministers. Jesus taught us about the importance of protecting those in prison from exploitation and abuse with these words: “I was in prison and you came to Me.” (Matthew 25:36.) I’ve found that you don’t have to go to a jail to fulfill the principle of visiting people in prison. State governments have created communities that house people convicted of crimes outside the prison walls.

While the community’s reputation keeps property prices low, the growing university has been buying up property. The university benefits from the low housing prices that are in the neighborhood. This puts the felons in competition for the use of property in the neighborhood. You might think I am being cynical, but you can say the university benefits from there being a place called “felony flats.” Its law school will provide the lawyers that will keep the criminals there and then assess legal fees for providing their services.

There is the landlord who rents to felons. A person with a felony can and will be rejected by most landlords. This means that a person convicted of a felony can only rent in certain circumstances. My wife and I went into a boarding house someone thought our church ought to purchase. We found that in felony flats you can rent a single room with a dirty mattress on the floor for around $500.00 a month. Yes, the tenants in this district have been known to run out on their rental obligations, but the landlords still make a profit. The truth is you can rent an entire apartment in a nicer part of town for less money. In addition, felons had better be careful about complaining about rent issues because their landlords can and will black ball them if they don’t keep their mouths shut and complain to the housing authority.

After he is released from jail, the felon is in a position where he can be exploited. Since their driving privileges are often suspended as a part of their conviction, most of the felons I’ve met don’t have transportation. As a result, they have to walk or ride a bicycle in order to shop. They have to purchase groceries at the neighborhood grocery store or the major chain store no matter how high the prices. Both the major grocery chain store and the corner grocer both benefit from having a captive clientele.

We don’t have food stamps in Oregon, we have the Oregon Trail Card. It works like a credit card for food. There is the businessman in the neighborhood who is rumored to have purchased the Oregon Trail Card from people who wanted cash. Of course he paid half the card’s value, but received full compensation for the card from the state.

The legal profession benefits from the status quo. A court appointed attorney to keep you out of jail is one thing, but you’re not going to get free legal advice to help you with clearing your name. There isn’t any court appointed attorney who will help get your kids back. In addition to all of the court fines, you are going to have to hire an attorney to untangle any of your legal problems.

There are individuals in the medical profession that benefit from the way things are. I have heard of a dentist charging $3,000 to do one root canal and crown for one tooth. The patient was a convicted felon, and I assume the dentist didn’t want her business so he quoted her a high price. In spite of a new beautiful dental clinic being built a few blocks a way from “felony flats” I don’t think the people in the neighborhood will be going there. I could be wrong, but I doubt if they’ll be able to afford the dentist’s services.

If you have been convicted of a felony you are going to have a hard time finding a job. I know of one man who was a favorite worker who was hired again and again to do one job after another by a temporary employment agency. The temp agency merged with another company and informed the man that since he had been convicted of a felony, his services would no longer be needed. The new company decided it would no longer hire anyone that had been convicted of a felony.

The unscrupulous businessman who violates laws needs felons so he can break codes and do things that violate the law. With employees who have to keep their mouths shut, his illegal activities will go unreported to the authorities. He can expose his employees to asbestos or other dangerous and illegal situations. He pays his employees under the table so he is not paying out taxes or paying for workman’s comp insurance. (This is why some employers use illegal aliens.) You might say the businessman who is willing to break the law needs a pool of individuals who find it almost impossible to find employment. To add insult to injury, the State of Oregon has passed laws that prevent felons from being hired by contractors working on state projects.

WHY WOULD ANYONE PAY HIS DEBT TO SOCIETY?
 
No wonder so many convicted criminals find it easier to make money by returning to criminal activity. If there is no immediate benefit or any real means, why would a person pay court levied fines? If he can’t find legitimate employment, how can the convicted felon pay his fines? Face it some people like it—they like the way things are. Either stop whining or do something about it!
 
Matthew 25:37-39
“Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink?
‘When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You?
‘Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’
 

(Copyright, Keith Churilla, 2011.)

Also by this author: The Armor of Light Bible Study & Planner
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Also by this author: The Armor of Light Bible Study & Planner

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