I just spent my morning in misdemeanor court with Jimmy, AKA Ben, who on April 17th lost his job as a dishwasher at the University because he stole two packages of crackers.
I have an incredible amount of things that I could say about the "criminal" "justice" system, but I will try to hold back. It's just that a lot of people that I saw today were hardly criminals -- and I'm not really sure what I think about the whole justice thing any more...
Jimmy was hired by the university through a program that works with people with developmental disabilities. He was requested to come there after working there as a high school student, so he waited from June until October, doing nothing, to get that job. He had a job coach. He was doing very well there, worked very hard, and I can imagine that he was one of their best workers, because he certainly is the hardest worker of my 12. He came home very tired, and by the time taxes were taken out he was able to make a whole $218 a week for full time work. Don't even get me started on people who think that the poor are lazy. There is no way that he could live on $218 a week in Mankato. One bedroom apartments start at about $500 a month, not including utilities. So he found the best job he could with his developmental level and he worked very hard full time to make about $1000 a month.. Sorry, I digress.... it's just that people have a very wrong perception of what it is like to be uneducated or to have delays that are significant to keep you from a higher paying job, but not significant to qualify for SSI...
So, here's what happened. Someone at work started suspecting that Jimmy was stealing little things from the on campus convenience store in the building where he did dishes. They didn't talk to Jimmy. They didn't talk to his job coach. What they did was assign someone to watch him and catch him doing it. He figured he wasn't getting caught so he kept doing it. I know him well and I guarantee you that with ONE warning he would have stopped. If we had known, or his job coach, or if his boss would have reminded him that there was a no tolerance policy there and that if he got caught stealing he would lose his job, Jimmy would have stopped.
But nobody talked to him. Or to us. Or to his job coach. And suddenly he found himself in handcuffs after grabbing two packages of peanut butter sandwich crackers. He was immediately fired. He lost his job, got ticketed, and was left with no time before we moved to get another job.
So, that takes us today when he finally had a court appearance a month later. We got there at 8, court was at 8:15 -- court for Jimmy and about 40 other people who had misdemeanor charges. We filled out a form in a room. I explained to Jimmy what to tell the court clerk -- that he had already been through the diversion program as a minor. But he didn't tell them that. SO they sent us to talk to someone about the diversion program. That took us until about 9:15.
The diversion person immediately told him that he didn't qualify for the diversion program and why. Then she explained to him how wrong what he did is. She asked him why he did it. He has no clue. He couldn't answer that question. To this day he has no idea why -- other than he didn't have any money with him and he wanted a snack. So finally she tells him he is going to be charged with a petty misdemeanor (ya think?) and that he has to appear before the judge. We are escorted to another courtroom.
When we get there we had to listen to three or four cases before us. The judge handled them very well -- I appreciate her concern and her style. But there were so many societal issues that were represented in those four cases that I couldn't believe it: Racial profiling, homelessness, teenage brain development issues, mental illness... the list was long and I was only there for thirty minutes.
End result -- Jimmy stood before the judge for 3 minutes. She asked him what he did. He told her he stole two packages of crackers. She didn't bother to ask him why. She fined him $277 dollars, we paid it and came home.
I charged Jimmy for my time this morning -- the amount I would have made had I been at my desk.
I told him I hoped they were really good crackers. He told me that he never got to eat them because they took them away from him.
He says he has learned his lesson. I really hope he did.
I see this from both sides, I really do and I'm sure that a few of you will have different opinions than I on this subject. But I really think that in many, many situations our traditional judicial system is not serving the population of people out there whose brains do not function properly. Jimmy experienced quite a bit of trauma as a toddler and his brain is just wired differently than other peoples. He's not going to wake up some day and "get it."
Sigh -- OK, let me have it.