Sunday, November 16, 2008

Time for a Culture Change

A few weeks ago I attended the sentencing hearing of a local, well-known, politically connected, business man from Baltimore County that defrauded individuals and banks over a number of years to the tune of $32 million dollars. What made his story bizarre was that, while he lived lavishly off of the fruits of his crime, he also established a number of charitable organizations that were doing a lot of good for the community. A modern day Robin Hood of sorts. Anyway, the scene was quite tragic. As to be expected, a number of people spoke on his behalf: various people he had helped out along the way, his daughter, and his wife. When these people spoke, they spoke as if they realized that their friend, father, and husband, was going to be heading to jail for a long period of time. Most of them sobbed the way through their speeches, speaking about what a great person the defendant was. The courtroom was packed with friends and family, many who could be seen sobbing during most of the sentencing hearing. The mood of the courtroom was quite sad; again, while he clearly was a horrible man for defrauding innocent people and institutions of millions of dollars, it did seem as if this guy was a good man, a good father, and a good husband, and the actions of those in the courtroom reflected this.

Contrast this with another sentencing hearing that I attended this week. This was a 24-year old guy from the streets of Baltimore being sentenced for a distribution of cocaine charge. Because he was considered a "career offender" (two prior drug offense charges), the sentencing guidelines were between 22 and 27 years for this charge. The only people there to support him were his girlfriend, his mother, his aunt, and his children. The mood in the courtroom was noticeably different from the prior proceeding that I had attended. Whereas the prior defendant had a serious look on his face, and broke down during allocution, this thug sat slouched in his chair, leaning back, often smiling and laughing. And while it have been that his children did not fully understand what was going on, I found it telling that they were essentially running around the back of the courtroom as if it were a playground. His mother, aunt, and girlfriend, while not joking around, sat there with an expression not very different from someone sitting in church or synagogue - just there because we have to be, and not because we want to be.

The problem, as I see it, is one of culture. For people that live on the streets of Baltimore, going to jail, even for long periods of time, is simply part of life. Mothers are accustomed to seeing their babies serve time, girlfriends accustomed to having their children see their baby-daddy through the visitation glass at prison. Those associated with the first defendant were not accustomed to seeing a beloved friend, father, and spouse, go to jail. This was evident by the demeanor of all in attendance at that sentencing. Their culture is not one of crime, violence, and incarceration. Until the culture of the streets - one in which it is "OKAY" to shirk all civic and familial responsibilities while rotting in jail - changes, this city, and others similarly situated where remain breeding grounds for criminals; one in which the children have little chance of contributing anything to society.