“If Your Mother Cooked Meth”

In simpler times, schools taught “reading and writing and ‘rithmetic.” They still do, to some extent, but that’s only a part of it.  Via the Yankton Daily Press & Dakotan:

During a school assembly Wednesday, U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson asked a group of Wagner students to imagine facing 20 years in federal prison on drug charges.

“The federal courts have mandatory minimum sentences,” he said. “There’s a certain amount of prison time, and no one judge can give you any less. The only way to cut your sentence in half is to give information on others.”

Johnson is the United States Attorney for the District of South Dakota.  Perhaps he lacked enough drug conspiracies to keep him busy, leaving him plenty of time to visit the students at Wagner to explain the merit of cooperation. Not the getting along kind of cooperation. The giving up your mother to the cops kind.

“You mean, snitch?” one student asked.

“I prefer the term ‘cooperation,’” Johnson replied.

Few hands went up at first, and Johnson asked why the reluctance.

“They’ll kill you for snitching,” one student said.

“So you’re saying, snitches get ditches?” Johnson asked.

He noted about 90 percent of defendants do cooperate for reduced sentences. “But you have to tell the whole story. If your mother cooked meth, you have to tell us that. If you leave out anything, it’s considered a lie,” he said.

Few of us would be surprised to learn that schools are big into teaching “citizenship,” especially given the number of prizes at the end of the year for the most American-ish student, usually offered by some vets organization.  I’ve sat through my share of awards assemblies, often wondering what exactly they meant when they extolled the virtues of citizenship. Voting?  Jury duty?  Paying taxes, perhaps?  Defending the free speech of others?

Or were they talking about who would be the first to rat out their mother?

Much of the program appears worthwhile, in the sense that Johnson spoke with students about potential harms to them, even in the wilds of South Dakota.  Whether the talk was meant to scare the crap out of kids or to inform them is a matter of perspective.  After all, risks do exist, and yet the chances of them happening to any individual are fairly remote. Does this teach students to be careful or to be scared?

And the students, not as blind as some might suspect, asked some decent questions of Johnson:

Johnson was asked his thoughts on the grand juries’ decision not to issue indictments in recent high profile cases involving white police and black men. Johnson responded that he holds South Dakota’s law enforcement in high esteem in regards to their community policing  efforts.

“I work closely with law enforcement all over South Dakota, and their jobs are really difficult. They put their lives on the line every day,” he said, adding they don’t look at race when responding to calls.

“They are incredibly honorable, and I’m proud to work with them,” he said.

Johnson’s response was as condescending and foolish as those who scream that all cops are evil.  If you wonder why people shrug off glaring misconduct and abuse, maybe it’s because young, impressionable minds are indoctrinated to the “put their lives on the line every day” trope.

One audience member asked Johnson how his office reconciles enforcing the federal law when it conflicts with state laws, particularly the recent approval of marijuana.

Johnson noted states have the power to pass such laws, but he would still prosecute such cases because the drugs are considered illegal under federal law.

Apparently, the Cole 2.0 Memo never made it as far as South Dakota yet. Main Justice needs some carrier pigeons with stronger wings.  Ironic that the high school kids have a greater sensitivity toward shifting federal priorities than a guy on the public dole, but Johnson is a busy guy and may not have had time to keep up on paradigm shift in the law.  He’s too busy speaking to students.

Is it wrong of schools to bring in a United States Attorney to teach students about the law?  Johnson is, after all, an important government official, a representative of the Department of Justice and the executive branch of government.  Surely that counts for something.

But consider, if you will, an elected representative conducting an assembly to teach students that fiscal prudence is necessary or the government will collapse, or that decriminalizing marijuana or allowing gay marriage would subvert American society.  And that goes both ways, as each team has its talking point to sell.

Perhaps an assembly by the United States Attorney should be balanced by, say, a defense lawyer who explains that there are other views about how the criminal justice system should work, or that innocent people shouldn’t “cooperate” to save their butts.  But can we force schools to offer balance to their programs?  And what makes a criminal defense lawyer think he’s the equivalent of a United States Attorney?  He’s got no title. He’s not even a law prof.

The message, however, is decidedly one-sided, and presents a view of citizenship that some parents might find offensive.  Is it really the school’s place to teach their children that “if your mother cooked meth, you have to tell us that”?  What if mom and dad cheated on their taxes? That too?  This could prove to be a pretty long list.

Even if you’re of the view that this is a good thing to teach young people, before they’re capable of adopting their own fully conceived vision of America, is there anyone teaching them that citizenship also means the exercise of civil rights, respect for the Constitution and, despite Johnson’s personal view that all police are “honorable” and don’t look at race when responding to a call, black kids end up dead for no good reason far too often?

And they still suck at ‘rithmetic when they graduate.

11 thoughts on ““If Your Mother Cooked Meth”

  1. Kerwin White

    “The message, however, is decidedly one-sided and presents a view of citizenship that some parents might find offensive.”

    I wonder if this means South Dakota parents can now call for Brendan Johnson’s resignation since he’s clearly expressing microaggressions. Surely there’s an enterprising parent out there who wants to shout his or her righteous indignation from the mountaintops and start a creative hashtag campaign on Twitter after this egregious display of…hell, I don’t know…something that hurts someone’s precious widdle feelings.

    It’d be nice to see a lawyer teach one of these “citizenship” lectures. Might actually be a balanced view of the world instead of ordering blanket obedience to the authority of the State.

  2. John Barleycorn

    hey tough guy….even with those few prosecutors and cops that hang out.


    they are not all that invincible…

    or maybe they are.

    is thunder

    storm lighting…

    thanks for yielding to the “criminal” element…

    have some smiles.

    bout time!

  3. JohnC

    “Wagner ask students to imagine facing 20 years in federal prison on drug charges.”

    Oddly, both as a law clerk (who had an atypical involvement in sentencings) and later in LE, I did/do something similar but in reverse.* A 30 year sentence? Holy crap, that’s the Carter admin. 20 years? That pretty most of my adult life. 12 years? That’s all of my college, law, and post-graduate degrees and training (i.e., much of what makes me who I am today).

    It makes the time more tangible, especially when you have room to play. It certainly gives me pause when I contextualize exactly “what someone owes” and what it is you’re taking away from someone (even if most defendants probably won’t use the time quite so profitably as I did).

    * Frankly, from my dealings with young offenders, asking them to imagine 20 years down the line isn’t an especially effective strategy.

    1. SHG Post author

      My experience is that ten years was the breaking point. Beyond that, defts were unable to process the meaning of time. The difference between 8 and 10 was huge; 11 and 19 essentially meaningless. Once they went beyond the ten year mark, it was as if they were sentence to life and nothing else mattered.

      1. JohnC

        And that’s federal time! (Another concept some defendants seem to have trouble processing.)

        60 mos. seems to be another inflection point, re for what seems “lengthy.” Speaking generally, and anecdotally, it seems the defense and bench are inclined to view anything below as a win, especially re low level dealers, penny-ante fraud, child porn, etc. (depending on offender history). I may even recall a graphic that sentences skew towards something like 60 mos. (i.e., there would be fewer sentences of 61, 62 mos., etc. than expected).

        (Side note: I see your captcha requires simple math. In keeping with your prior post on non-lawyer comments, maybe a simple Guideline calculation would be apropos…?)

        1. SHG Post author

          maybe a simple Guideline calculation would be apropos…?

          That would be so cool. Fraud tables or drug conversion tables. Either would do it for me.

  4. Rebecca

    “they don’t look at race when responding to calls.”

    So if you call 911 in South Dakota, the operator won’t ask you for the race of the suspect? I call BS on that.

    It’s a good thing kids aren’t dumb.

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