"When Stuart was sentenced to 44 months, there was quite a community reaction. I think a lot of people wanted to know: Why did that happen? What can we do to prevent that from happening again?" noted Mediation Center Director Laura Jeffords at the start of an informal Feb. 19 gathering of concerned citizens and representatives of local agencies that deal with the criminal-justice system.
Jeffords was referring to the harsh sentence handed down to anti-gang educator Stuart Peterson last November for an armed-robbery conviction (see "Justice Undone?" Dec. 2, 2009, Xpress). The case raised concerns about both the fairness and the effectiveness of handing out long prison sentences to people actively involved in trying to turn their lives around. The Mediation Center organized the meeting at the Asheville YWCA, encouraging participants to air their frustrations and discuss possible solutions.
At the end of a closed community meeting shortly after the November sentencing, noted Jeffords, "Everyone wanted to continue that discussion about what we can do to prevent incarceration [or] re-incarceration and provide support for family members and inmates. Hopefully that's the work we'll start here."
Breaking up into smaller groups, the participants discussed what they feel are the challenges imposed by the way the legal and penal systems currently operate.
"When I charge someone with a felony at 16, that doesn't go away; it's never going to ever go away," Sgt. Quentin Miller of the Asheville Police Department, who's also a trained mediator, told his group. "That's why I want to keep it out of the criminal system. I'm also a police officer; that's something I struggle with daily."
Felony convictions can make it hard to find a job, and several people emphasized the need for a way to place rehabilitated felons in stable employment.
"The way it's going, we're losing a lot of young men to technicalities that don't match the severity of the crime," said Wayne Purcell of the Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministry. "There needs to be an understanding that, in some cases, following the letter of the law blindly just puts people behind bars. It has a systemic effect for generations, and over the long run, it has a negative effect."
Jim Barton, an activist on justice issues who also founded the Smith Mill Creek Permaculture School, said he's often seen draconian legislation result from overreaction to atypical but highly publicized cases.
Meanwhile, Assistant District Attorney Kate Dreher told her group that many people don't appreciate the difficulties prosecutors face.
"No one thinks about what the poor prosecutor has to go through," she noted. "Let's say you let someone off easy, because people speak on their behalf and you think they deserve a second chance. Then you're worried that they might end up killing Eve Carson [a UNC-Chapel Hill student-body president who was killed by two repeat offenders]. It's hard to sleep at night sometimes."
Dreher added that most people she talks to want harsh sentences for offenders — unless it's someone they know, in which case they want leniency.
Dreher also said she favors establishing scout troops and similar youth groups in housing projects and impoverished areas to give younger people a healthy environment and support system.
"How do you find things that kids enjoy more than drinking or doing drugs?" one group member piped up.
Suggestions included expanding existing programs such as Green Opportunities (where Peterson was working at the time he was sentenced) and helping families intervene early on, before troubled youths end up in the penal system.
Several attendees recommended pushing the state to revise its sentencing laws, including raising the age at which offenders can be tried as adults.
Thinking outside the box
Barton called for "more critical thinking and less bureaucracy," specifically referring to the state's mandatory sentencing grid, which he believes often makes rehabilitation impossible. Barton took particular aim at District Attorney Ron Moore's statements at the December meeting, when he justified Peterson's sentence by referring to the sentencing grid.
"As a taxpayer," Barton recalled, "I thought it was appalling when the DA said, 'We have this grid here, and we have this kid who's made this reasonable turnaround in his life, and I'm from a Charles Dickens novel and I'm just going to have to send him to prison — and you're going to have to pay for it.'
"It was a moment of stupidity," asserted Barton, "and I think a lot of the criminal-justice system and the school system are made up of people following dumb rules that they themselves don't believe in, and it leads to an atmosphere of despair among people in those positions. I don't have an easy solution, but we need to say something about the elephant in the room."
"Can I say something about it, then? Because I live with the elephant," Dreher shot back. People, she maintained, should have more respect for the DA's office if they want good people to seek it.
"When I was growing up, I wanted to be something, because people that were something were respected," Dreher said.
Speaking candidly about the pressures the DA's office faces, Dreher added that neither she nor Moore is very fond of structured sentencing. "He's stuck in that box because of the citizens and taxpayers and voters," she asserted. "He has one vote, that's all. He would never have voted for the sentencing grid in a million years. … He didn't draw this box; he doesn't like the box. But you drew the box, you put him in the box — you put me in the box too."
So why does the district attorney's office follow "the box" if they don't agree with it? After all, district attorneys can choose to dismiss or reduce charges if they don't believe they're justified. But they follow the box because their careers, Dreher said, are at stake.
"If I stand up in court and go, 'Forget this; I'm dismissing all of this because I don't believe in the box'? Then I go back to the coal-mining town I came out of and I listen to my brother scrape a knife in the peanut butter jar to get his dinner out."