A Little Reform On A Big Soapbox

Everybody has a story to tell, and most think their story is well worth your time.  There’s nothing unusual about that, except when they find out that other people yawn, make excuses to leave, run away to avoid having to hear your story. Only then do you realize that the story all about you isn’t nearly as fascinating to others as you think it should be.

But when the story is told for the sake of advocacy, and given a monstrously huge soapbox, it better be a damn good one.  An op-ed in the New York Times by Doug Deason, a Texas investor who did well enough to hang out with governors, is such a story.  It’s not a particularly good one; in fact, it’s a major yawner.

But Deason’s purposes are pure, not just to waste other people’s time with his pedestrian tale of woe, but to use his story to prove a point, that our “justice” system sucks and people need to be given a second chance.  Good intentions? Absolutely.  An op-ed we can all get behind because we, like Deason, believe the same thing?  Well, not exactly.

His story begins as a 17-year-old having a party at the neighbors’ house.  Except the neighbors weren’t home.

I am a Republican businessman, and President Obama and I do not see eye to eye on most issues. But I agree with him on the inequities of the criminal justice system. I learned about it firsthand. Like many 17-year-olds, I did something stupid. It was 1979, and I threw a party at the home of neighbors while they were out of town. (Their son had given me a key.) The party got out of hand, ultimately getting the attention of the police. I was charged with felony burglary.

The inclusion of Deason’s political affiliation might seem banal, even gratuitous, but it’s not. He mentions it to make a point, that he’s no bleeding heart liberal. This establishes his bona fides, much like a woman will first announce she’s a feminist before attacking the neo-feminist infantalization of women.

But unlike many in my situation, I was able to fight the charge. I ultimately pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor criminal trespass charge — a significant step down from felony burglary. My punishment included a six-month probationary sentence and a fine. When my probation was complete, my youthful indiscretion was expunged from my record. I was given a second chance.

Moving, right? Wipe the tear from your eye.  To the extent this story conveys the sense that a conviction can happen to anyone, especially stupid kids, it’s fine, but it really doesn’t serve that purpose very well. Let’s face it, this is no Gibson fingerboard story, or tale of a father sentenced to 55 years for selling some weed.

But given that Deason bared his wayward youth for a reason, perhaps we shouldn’t be too critical and instead embrace his purpose if not the horror of his one interaction with the legal system:

Because of this, my family has resolved to fight for change. Given a second chance, I have been blessed to become a successful investor in numerous ventures, including real estate, technology, entertainment and energy. My success has given me the opportunity to work with the Texas State Legislature and the governor’s office over the past year to pass a bipartisan “second chances” bill — a bill to help people who make mistakes like the one I made in 1979.

Note that last phrase, a bill to help people like him. It’s not that he lacks empathy or understanding, but that it only extends are far as his experience takes him.

The legislation allows some first-time criminals who commit low-level, nonviolent offenses to petition the courts for nondisclosure of their records to the general public.

Let’s parse this for its elements:

1. First-time criminals
2. Low-level crimes
3. Non-violent offenses

And the upshot of meeting these three criteria is that you can conceal the conviction.  That only leave, well, 99.7% of the rest of the folks in the meat grinder without any comfort at all. They won’t get that “second chance” that allowed Deason to become rich and influential.

So what does Deason think of those whose convictions are, well, a tad less trivial than his? Maybe they had a prior pop for peeing against an alley wall, or a nickel bag of weed. Maybe they threw the second punch in a fight and got popped for assault? Or they drove tipsy and didn’t make it home safe to sleep it off, instead hitting a car driven by a nun. Oh hell, you know the litany of possibilities as well as I do.

Deason then calls out for reform:

They can start by revisiting “mandatory minimum” sentences for nonviolent lawbreakers. These policies often force criminals into unnecessarily lengthy prison terms that are wholly inappropriate for their crimes. This has greatly contributed to the explosion in the federal prison population, which has risen to 208,000 from 25,000 over the past 35 years.

Well, actually no. Not even close. Deason is no more entitled to make shit up than anyone else. The problem isn’t mandatory minimums for “nonviolent lawbreakers” that have “greatly contributed” to mass incarceration.  The problem is the very people Deason expressly omits from those worthy of a second chance, people convicted of violent crimes. People with more than one conviction. People convicted of greater than “low level” offenses.

This weekend, I will join Charles Koch, David Koch and several hundred other business leaders at the Freedom Partners membership meeting, where I will speak about criminal justice reform. The Kochs and I firmly believe this is an important part of our efforts to give everyone — especially the least fortunate — the best shot at a better life. Years ago, I made a mistake and got a second chance. Every American should be able to say the same thing.

It’s great to see people from across the political spectrum reaching a consensus that the system needs to be reformed.  This, however, is not the reform we need, and falls ridiculously short of a bare grasp of the problem.  Deason’s message is people like him deserve a second chance, because he was just a stupid kid who made an irresponsible mistake. He offers little comfort, however, to others.  Worse, as dilettantes like Deason make speeches, because they know stuff due to the pedestrian travails of their youth, they demonize the very people who need reform most, condemning them to misery and failure.

This doesn’t help, and it feeds the pervasive ignorance of what is wrong with the system.  But there it is, perpetuating the stupid in an op-ed in the New York Times, the biggest soapbox around, burning everyone in the system who isn’t just like Deason.

12 thoughts on “A Little Reform On A Big Soapbox

  1. Piedmont

    You don’t think this would serve as a valuable testing of the waters? If society doesn’t collapse after his proposal is accepted*, maybe people will give a second look to those with more serious issues. Besides, Republicans are the traditional Law & Order party and are called “conservative” for a reason; getting them on board with any kind of reform is going to be an incremental task. This seems like a valuable first step.

    *Anecdotally, this doesn’t seem to have happened in the many jurisdictions I’ve practiced where similar policies are already unofficially in place, although at least one of the courthouses itself is physically starting to.

    1. SHG Post author

      No, I don’t. Not at all. First, it’s conceptual bullshit. There is no mass incarceration of low-level, first-time nonviolent offenders. Second, in the course of advocating for these mythological creatures, they Willie Hortonize everyone else, making people stupider and increasing the hate and fear.

      But most importantly, there are millions of people in prison forever, and we should “test the waters,” let them waste away for the next 20 years while we “test the waters” when we already know the answer? Go spend 20 years in prison for a little research and let me know how you don’t mind sitting in a cell so that there is time to “test the waters.” These are real people’s lives. Not yours, so maybe there’s no rush for you, but they kinda want to get out before their babies get social security.

      1. Piedmont

        The people for whom you’re asking a second chance are precisely the people that most of society regards as being dangerous. There’s no way that society (the very vast majority of which has never been convicted of a crime) is going to suddenly decide that they want to help these people unless you ease them into it and give them reason to believe that they’re not cutting their own collective throats.

        You’re advocating for a deeply radical position, despite it having some merit, neither snark nor trying to get it in one go is going to help you or the people you’re trying to help. It’s more likely to make people not take you seriously.

        Alternatively, you can sit on your high horse and demand reform NOW for the next fifty years (or forever) instead of the twenty you seem to think it would take to do it incrementally.

        1. SHG Post author

          There’s only one shot at it. That’s what everyone forgets. A big push for reform, the choir sings hallelujah and we all pat ourselves on the back and move on to the next thing. It’s done.

          The options are make it count or stop wasting time. The problem is that “most of society regards as being dangerous,” and the reason they do is because of crap like Deason (though in fairness, he’s just the latest in a thousand voices vilifying prisoners). Society regards them as dangerous because that’s how reformers played the game, using the “violent felons” to trade off the non-violent. We threw away the masses to save a handful. Woo hoo!

          You’re a prosecutor. You know who these “violent felons” are, and you know some are violent psychopaths, but most pose no danger to anyone. Yet, we lumped them all together, put them in forever between mandatory mins and ever-increasing guidelines. And if they ever get out, they’re tainted for life so they can never get a job, a house, anything.

          But reform for first-time low-level nonviolent defendants is a nonsense. And if that’s all we get, it was all a big joke.

  2. Sonny Bohanan

    The first thing that came to mind on reading this was, Why now? Mr Deason’s run-in with the law happened more than 35 years ago, and now, in his 50s, he’s become inspired to fight for the narrowest sliver of offenders that one could possibly define. Call me cynical, but anyone who is about to spend the weekend with the billionaire Koch brothers has a political agenda that has nothing to do with helping the downtrodden who are beaten by the criminal justice system. If this band of right-wing hardliners favors real criminal justice reform, I’ll eat my hat, and yours too. Because when the Koch brothers sre done with their brand of reform, your wallet will be gone and you’ll be starving in the street.

    1. SHG Post author

      To the extent Deason may have an ulterior purpose with regard to the Koch brothers, it’s possible. Maybe they needed a breathing example and Deason was the best they could find.

      As for their supporting reform, it’s a sound fiscal conservative cause, but only if it ends pointless mass incarceration. This, as you properly note, is “narrowest sliver” possible, and is of little use to anyone.

  3. fledermaus

    Point taken about the ridiculous narrowness of his reform. I checked my state’s expungement statute and burglary is considered a “crime against persons” so, in my state at least, he wouldn’t even benefit from his own reforms.

        1. SHG Post author

          If by good you mean make people’s lives miserable, if not impossible, then yes. Otherwise, not really. It’s another foolish palliative that protects in theory without accomplishing anything in reality.

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