By Frank X Walker
When money is no object, the government, not unlike many of us, budgets and spends without ever weighing the moral implications of individual expenditures. It cavalierly makes luxury purchases based on want, not need. When forced to cut spending, it’s always the “wanted” purchases that are surrendered first.
The current national economic climate is forcing many states, even Kentucky, to identify unnecessary spending. It’s a good occasion for budgetary sobriety. Unfortunately, it is also a litmus test for who and what is least valued by our power structure and a sad commentary on society at large.
When Gov. Paul Patton granted what some are calling “Get-Out-of-Jail-Free” cards to 567 non-violent class-D felons shortly before Christmas, in an effort to save an estimated $3 million, he brought to light how poorly conceived our sentencing strategies are, but he also circumvented the ever sensitive, but relevant issue of race in the criminal justice system. Many people outside of this state would be shocked to discover that in spite of Kentucky’s largely Appalachian national image, there are actually people of color here besides transplanted college basketball players. Our predominantly-white justice system has successfully kept up with much larger states in compiling a negative history of what most in the black community perceive as civil-rights violations against African-American men.
Even today, this record results in daily protests against the most recent fatal shooting of a black man in Louisville. He was shot 11 times while handcuffed Dec. 5 by one of two arresting white officers. This is not the first, second, third, or even fourth time in as many years that a similar event has occurred in this state. Even more pungent than the loss of lives, these tragedies ordinarily result in officers who face no more of a penalty than temporary suspension with pay, or what is known in my house as a vacation.
I have read published statistics that detail how young African-American males are overwhelmingly represented in what many refer to as the “prison industrial complex” a kind name for a system that has increased incarcerations by 500 percent nationally in recent years, in spite of the drop in violent crime. But still, I was shocked after visiting the men’s federal prison in Fayette county to see that the majority of the inmates not only looked racially like me, but were from the one demographic that is overwhelmingly absent from the student body on local college campuses, if you don’t count Division 1 athletes.
Having a younger brother in my archetypal black family who represents our contribution to the advertised 25 percent of black men having spent time in one of these post-modern middle-passage vehicles, my glass was half-full upon the mass release. The empty half was married to the notion that, given the luxury status now associated with this level of “criminal mischief,” which includes theft, arson, and burglary in addition to nonpayment of child support and driving under the influence, maybe my brother and a lot of young men who look like him didn’t have to spend even a day behind bars.
Further, recognizing that large numbers of those released were in for drug possession painfully conjured up my sister and my family’s struggle with her chemical-abuse problems. If I believed incarceration would give me my little sister back, I’d lock her up myself, but the truth is many addicts get jail time rather than help, and upon release they continue using drugs and end up behind bars for even longer on subsequent trips until they eventually become permanent wards of the state.
Maybe as other governors line up behind Paul Patton in these after-Christmas exchange lines, returning government excess and poorly designed spending initiatives to the stores, somebody will get the bright idea to treat drug abusers as individuals in need of counseling, rehabilitation, and treatment, and not as hardened criminals expendable as prisoners not because of their potential cost savings, but because of their human potential.
I wish I could believe that Kentucky was seeking to be an example to a nation sorely in need of creative solutions that impact attitudes about race and justice, but this is the same state that refused to include those convicted of assault on a sports official as one of the class-D felonies eligible for early release. Not that I condone assault on anyone, but to have a special category of assault reserved for sports officials? And to keep those convicted of it rotting behind bars when others are being released, speaks to what we really value.