A This American Life episode from a couple of weeks ago tells the story of Mike Anderson, a married, suburban St. Louis father of four. Mr. Anderson owned a contracting business and built his family’s home from the ground up. He volunteered at church and coached his son’s football team. In short, he was a responsible, productive member of society.
But he had a secret. And one morning last summer, while Mr. Anderson was home alone with his two-year-old daughter, with his wife away on a business trip, a hard knock on the door brought his secret to light.
In 1999, when Mr. Anderson was 22 years old, he and a friend held up a Burger King manager while the man was making a night deposit at a bank. Mr. Anderson says he got “caught up with the wrong crowd that night.” He had no prior convictions and a full-time job. He said the robbery wasn’t his idea and that his friend’s weapon was just a BB gun. (It was never recovered.)
Nonetheless, Mr. Anderson was convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to 13 years in prison. He was out on bond filing appeals when the court ultimately determined that he did indeed have to serve his sentence. Mr. Anderson waited for a warrant to be issued so the police would come take him to prison. But it never happened. They didn’t come.
Due to a clerical error, the court had been informed that Mr. Anderson was already in prison. It wasn’t until 13 years later, when the system was preparing for his release, that they discovered he’d never been there at all. So they finally came for him.
In the meantime, Mr. Anderson had gone from expecting to be picked up at any moment, to thinking maybe it would never happen, to deciding to turn his life around. He went back to school and became a master carpenter. He married and became a family man. He never had another run-in with the law.
In the words of the segment’s narrator, “Thirteen years without going to prison did exactly what you’d hope 13 years in prison will do for a person: Mike reformed, became a model citizen. Which raises the question, do we want to send him to prison? It’ll cost the state of Missouri about $20,000 a year to house and feed him. And if Mike’s no longer a danger to society, what’s the point of having him sit in a cell when he could be out working, paying taxes, and raising his kids?”
As Mr. Anderson’s story has become known in the St. Louis area, many people have come to the opinion that if he’s been rehabilitated, he shouldn’t have to serve his prison sentence. Surprisingly, perhaps, one such person is the victim of Mr. Anderson’s crime. The victim, who was deeply impacted by the crime, was initially angry when he learned that Mr. Anderson didn’t serve his sentence. But thinking more on the situation, he has come to believe that what the State is doing to Mr. Anderson isn’t right. He says, “Yeah, he screwed up when he was little, but the law dropped the ball; the law ought to drop it completely. They need to leave the man alone.”
Mike Anderson’s story reminded me of a subject I’ve thought on for years – one on which my thoughts have most definitely evolved: What purpose do criminal sentences (namely prison terms) serve? Are they meant to be punishments, pure and simple? Are they meant to protect the public from dangerous individuals? Are they meant to rehabilitate criminals so they can be successfully returned to society?
It is my nature to view crime and punishment in very simple terms: If you commit a crime, you deserve to be punished. Period. (I’m a strong “J” on the Myers Briggs scale.) I remember thinking as a teenager, “If you do something wrong, you deserve whatever you get. Whatever you get.” I was in favor of capital punishment, three-strikes laws, building more prisons – you name it.
Over time, however, my thinking has changed… grown… become more nuanced. It’s become at once more compassionate and more practical.
The changes started with capital punishment. On that particular topic, my Catholic faith had a strong influence in changing my mind: statements from Pope John Paul II and lunch table conversations with seminarian friends ultimately convinced me to be more humble in my considerations. I went from thinking, “If you murder, you deserve to be killed,” to “It’s not so much about what murderers deserve as it is about what we choose to do with them.”
I later came to apply that thinking to the subject of crime and punishment in general. I figure that it’s never up to me to determine what someone deserves – that task is for God alone.
It is, of course, up to society to determine the best ways to keep its population safe and to prevent crimes from occurring in the future. And I think that is where our focus should be when considering crime and punishment. It’s not up to me (or people in general, and therefore the State) to dole out punishments simply for the sake of punishing. It’s up to us to be intelligent and deliberate about dealing with the fallout from crime and figuring out the best ways to prevent it from perpetuating.
Tragically, our criminal justice system does a terrible job of this. Small-time offenders leave prison with (1) fewer prospects for gainful employment than they had before establishing their criminal record and (2) experiences and contacts that better equip them for a life of crime than for anything else. No wonder recidivism rates are so high.
I think we need to be more practical about what we do with those found guilty of crimes. It’s one thing if someone has committed a crime that will earn him or her a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. (Which is, I think, what we should choose over capital punishment. For one, because taking a life is a grave, grave matter that should be avoided whenever possible. For another, because people should be given every possible opportunity to repent of their sins.) It’s quite another thing if a person’s crime will earn him or her a temporary prison sentence.
If a criminal is to be returned to society someday, then society should do everything possible to ensure that he or she re-enters it prepared to function legally. Crime should not be ex-offenders’ only real prospect for survival. They should be able to work, to earn, to contribute, to thrive. Everyone will be better off when a criminal can complete his or her sentence and then move on.
I’m not naïve; I know such a situation would be terribly hard to achieve. (And it will never be perfectly achieved.) Employers are (understandably) unwilling to hire people with criminal records. Solid communities are largely unwilling to take them in; subversive communities are all too willing. And people are imperfect. Some will continue to do wrong no matter how much assistance they are given.
But I think it’s worth trying.
Sentencing guidelines, prison conditions, hiring policies, resources for ex-offenders: they’re all areas where improvements can be made. And indeed the status quo on sentencing and prisons, at least, is in many cases currently doing more harm than good.
Just think of Mike Anderson. His business, his home, his children would not be here if he had reported to prison 13 years ago. He would not have paid taxes and contributed to the economy. He would not have been able to volunteer at that church or coach that team.
How many more empty spaces do we have today – ghosts, you might say, of those sitting in prison – spaces in our economy, our neighborhoods, our families, our communities, where people could be contributing rather than serving prison terms that harden and debilitate them?
As far as Mike Anderson is concerned, his attorney has filed a brief arguing that when the State forgot about Mr. Anderson for 13 years, it violated his right to due process or speedy punishment. If the effort fails, his only recourse is to petition Missouri’s governor for clemency. The governor has only granted clemency once. I pray that Mr. Anderson’s case prompts him to do so again.
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