Wednesday, December 13, 2006

from the court house to the white house

day started with a long drive to henrico county for my court date. got a reckless driving citation for my "act of god" hydroplaning incident oct. 17. when i asked the trooper why i was getting a ticket the day of the accident, she responded: "i gotta give you something." judging by the amount of people in the court room today issued citations by this particular trooper, she ain't kidding. she definitely feels the need to give you SOMETHING... if you are a sleepy trucker who wants to pull off the road, if you just happen to be in the same car with someone driving with an expired license or if -- like me -- you had the misfortune of being in a one car hydroplaning accident. turns out there were 3 of us fighting reckless driving tickets for hydroplaning on the same stretch of road i crashed on. for once, being at the end of the alphabetic cue worked in my favor.

dad went with me (because he is THE best dad in the world) and we kept a running talley: 38 cases before me. People: zero. Cops: 38. The closest thing to a win in the people category was for a woman who had her speedometer calibrated after a speeding ticket. The judge dropped her ticket from reckless driving but still fined her and made her pay court costs. one of the hydroplaners was an engineer and had examined the grade of I-295, where we both had crashed, determining the road was tipped and a hazard. If that's so, the judge asked, why didn't everyone crash that day? the reckless driving charge stuck for that poor schmuck. dad and i took note and decided my best bet was to work the rental car angle hard. i'd also looked up the vehicle code -- thanks to some sound legal advice from jstew, non-practicing lawyer extraordinaire. that particular code of reckless driving is for failure to maintain brakes for highway driving. ps. i didn't use my brakes... i was hydroplaning.

my argument was sound but the judge wasn't merciful to those in his courtroom in this christmas season... best case scenario, i expected traffic court and court costs. finally, we got to the end of the cue and the W's were up. dad and i approached the bench... my legs shaking. judge asked the officer for the facts of the case and my plea. not guilty of course. officer davenport was a little fuzzy on the details of my case -- like whether or not it was raining (it was. hard) so i set the judge straight, gave him the pictures mom took of the poor tires on the rental car... and cited the code, explaining my brakes were never engaged in the accident. this is where the judge came alive: "you are so right, ms. wallace," he said. "if more people understood that we'd have fewer accidents." he then told me he was going to dismiss my case... but he phrased it more like a question. he repeated himself... this time with authority. he would dismiss my citation. and he thanked me for doing the right thing in the accident. jedi mind powers DO work.

without a look at trooper davenport or the judge, dad and i quickly gathered our belongings, turn on our heels and beat it out of there because neither one of us thought we could supress the AH YEAH that was bubbling up. right outside the courtroom doors: celebration, high fives, hand motions of sticking it to THE MAN. we fought the law... and we were the only ones today that WON. cops: 38. people: 1!

from henrico, dad and i made our way back to dc so i could get ready for dinner with george and laura. journalist reception at the white house.... first time meeting a sitting president (bill clinton post-WH years doesn't count). wow -- they do that place UP at christmas. sensory overload! we got the whole run of the upstairs west wing... two ballrooms, the oval sitting room, the library, the first ladies' room (with paintings of all the last ladies, from roosevelt to clinton) and my favorite... the map room. framed on the wall was the last WWII troop movement map FDR saw of the european theater before his death. if i could've rolled it up and taken it home, i would've. damn secret service agents. the food was beautiful to look at and even better in my mouth and ginormous christmas trees and exquisite nativity scenes were in each of the upstairs rooms. it was too much to take in.

i did meet the pres. i was introduced as "the friend" and W said -- oh... the FRIEND. i said... yup. that's me. he said i was a beautiful friend... and i told him he was my new best friend for saying that. Laura asked where i work and said i was lucky to be with national geographic. i told them they had a lovely home ... liked what they'd done with the place, photo was snapped and they were on to the next eager handgrabber. i chatted with tony snow (he likes trading punches with the press, he says) and a few other names you see in bylines. it was magical. all told -- not a bad day. got lucky at the courthouse and was pronounced "beautiful" and "lucky" by the prez and first lady.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

chain gangs? anyone?

i had my opinions on capital punishment, "getting tough on crime," and the justice system at large.... and then i went to prison.

i spent a total of 12 weeks at two maximum-security prisons in California -- a men's and a women's prison -- and met the people we forget about after they are sentenced and file out of the courtroom. the numbers of our fellow citizens behind bars is shameful. With 2.2 million americans locked up, we have more convicts per capita and in sheer numbers than any other nation. And we have the highest recidivism rate of any country with more than half of our parolees cycling back through. it's clear our justice system isn't working. When we have kids serving longer sentences for stealing cars than repeat offending molesters, we need to evaluate sentencing laws and what we value as a culture.

food for thought:

- of the dozens of inmates i spoke to, only one inmate grew up with both a mom and dad in the home.
- i posed the question "when did you start on the path that brought you here?" to almost every female inmate I spoke to. With few exceptions the answer was sexual molestation.
- the boys from the inner cities consider prison their university -- the only type of "higher learning" they think they have access to.

i'm not naive. i saw the rap sheets of many of the people i spoke to and some of them did horrifying things and deserve to be in prison. Others don't deserve their sentences like inmate Smith, who is serving a 200-year sentence for 8 counts of petty robbery. Granted he had a gun -- that he didn't fire -- but none of his crimes resulted in violence of any kind. This is a man who should be in a work camp or on a chain gang, working out restitution with the state and his victims, NOT clogging up the system and languishing behind bars until his pine box parole. No wonder California is exporting convicts all over the country because they don't have room for all the people they are locking up. there is such a thing as being too tough on crime and the widely variant sentencing is just one of many problems i have with the system. Consider inmate Berry -- in for 13 years for a first-time armed robbery. No one got hurt in Berry's unsuccessful attempt to rob a gas station and he quickly confessed to his crime upon his arrest. He deserves punishment, certainly. But why is he in longer than inmate evanoff, a two-time armed assault offender serving a six-year sentence? or inmate costas, a rapist with a five-year sentence, for crying out loud?

here's my solution: robbers and drug dealers go to work camps to pay off a pre-determined debt to society, and we start offing more murders and rapists, who have forfeited their right to co-exist in our community or in a lock-up on taxpayer dime. some people can't be rehabilitated and right now we are housing basically decent folks who have made mistakes with the murderous, insane and unrepentant. combining violent offenders with short-timers makes prison a molotov cocktail graduate school for crime -- institutionalizing young inmates capable of change. when it comes to crime, let's keep 'em separated. who's with me?

Saturday, November 11, 2006