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Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2008

Turning In Your Kids

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Milwaukee police praised a central-city mother who called them to turn in her own kids after she recognized them robbing a gas station on one of those ubiquitous surveillance videos broadcast on local TV.

I don’t think I could do that.

I don’t support crime. I’m not an advocate of “no snitch.” I strongly believe the only way to stop crime and violence in our cities is to give information to the police, particularly about those who use guns and violence on our streets.

But in the case of a loved one, here is my hesitation. I know there are two ways young people’s lives can end on our streets. They can lose their lives to deadly violence or they can lose their lives in the criminal justice system.

In this specific case, the mother saw her teenage son and daughter holding up a gas station using what turned out to be a BB gun. The fact that the young people weren’t using a deadly weapon doesn’t make the situation any less terrifying. Their target easily could have had a lethal weapon behind the counter and have been eager to use it.

And if the robbery had succeeded without consequence, who is to say the two children wouldn’t continue further down that perilous path, seeking bigger payoffs with deadlier weapons?

I’m not advocating doing nothing. I would attempt to intervene in my children’s lives using every available resource—other caring family members, professional and legal services, anyone who could help save their lives.

A Blunt Instrument

Here’s my greatest fear about calling the police. The criminal justice system is a blunt instrument. It doesn’t do nuance. It often appears not to care about the individual lives caught up in the system. Once someone enters, it’s extremely difficult to ever get out. Many never do.

My wife, Kit, works closely with the criminal justice system by providing an alternative to incarceration for women at the Benedict Center. She also advocates locally and nationally for effective alternatives to expensive, ineffective incarceration that regularly puts offenders back in the community more dangerous and less employable than they were before.

As an expert, Kit assures me I am an idiot for suggesting a parent shouldn’t turn in a child sought for committing a crime. The correct answer, she says, is to show up in the Office of the District Attorney immediately with the children and a good attorney.

She has seen too many people further complicate their lives and bring even harsher punishment down upon themselves by failing to show up in court out of fear. She also said I could go to jail for being an idiot and she’d have to think about whether she’d even bother to visit me.

There are degrees of idiocy, of course. It would be a no-brainer to turn in a loved one who was a danger to the lives of others. David Kaczynski, the brother of the Unabomber, was absolutely right to turn in his mentally ill brother, Ted, who had sent bombs through the mail, killing three people and injuring 23 others.

At the other end of the spectrum are the parents we occasionally read about who discover pot in their teenagers’ rooms and turn them in to the police to teach the kids a good lesson.

One of the lessons the entire family may learn is that disproportionate enforcement of drug laws can saddle some young people in such circumstances with felony drug convictions that prevent them from getting a college education and reduce job possibilities for the rest of their lives.

All of us know the justice system is not without its flaws, to say the absolute least. We know the clear racial disparities within the system. People of color who commit the same crimes as whites are treated more harshly at every step in the system. African Americans are more likely to be arrested by the police and they’re more likely to be charged. The charges they receive are more serious, they’re more likely to be convicted and they receive longer sentences.

The people who are lucky enough to avoid prosecution when they do dumb, illegal things in their lives may not realize it, but it’s a problem when people don’t expect to receive justice from our justice system.

It creates disrespect for the law when citizens consider their legal system to be corrupt. We should have a system of justice that treats everyone fairly and with dignity.

Unfortunately, it’s not just fear on the part of the public that distorts our justice system. Many judges live in constant fear they could be attacked by right-wing talk radio for not being tough enough. When judges allow the inflammatory opinions of talk radio to determine their sentences, abandon hope all ye who enter here.

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.