Opinion: And justice for all ...

SDN Editor Ryan Phillips

Ryan Phillips
SDN Editor

I sat in on a handful of court cases last week that gave me pause and made me question the way our justice system handles varying degrees of offenses. 

Without naming names of offenders or judges, I think it is important that we begin a dialogue to get to the root of our problems as they relate to prosecuting certain crimes. 

As a preface, though, I acknowledge that no two court cases can be handled the same way. I just believe these instances are worth mentioning and comparing to underscore where our priorities sit as a society. 

In one case, a woman who attacked her work supervisor with a box cutter, cutting him on the face, entered the courtroom as a free woman and received probation, with no time to serve pending her good behavior after entering a plea deal. She was released shortly after being charged with aggravated assault - a charge that was ultimately reduced after she admitted her guilt ahead of a jury trial that likely would not have gone in her favor. 

Less than an hour later, a 90-pound teenage girl who said she had no real support network was told she would stay in jail after being arrested for methamphetamine possession a few months ago. She was not manufacturing or selling meth. Rather, she was in possession of less than 2 grams of the highly-addictive drug. 

The latter suspect had been in jail for at least a couple of months at that point. I know this for a fact because I attended her initial appearance in Municipal Court. In both of her appearances that I sat through, the tears flowed … enough so that I felt a deep sympathy for her situation and got misty-eyed myself. 

I will concede that her physical appearance had improved dramatically from her first court appearance to her most recent. Her skin was clearer and her hair looked healthier, but for all intents and purposes, this is still a sick child who is being kept in jail for committing an offense that only impacted her well-being and no one else. 

The rationale of the judge to keep this young woman incarcerated was her own safety, operating under the assumption that if she was released that day and allowed to enroll in a pre-trial diversion program, that she would immediately go back to her old ways and end up back in jail … so the idea was to keep her in jail until one of the increasingly fewer beds opened up at a residential treatment facility somewhere in the area - likely Columbus. 

I have to admit, I was disappointed to see that someone who admitted to a violent offense was given a pretty easy pass, while someone who is in obvious need of help was sent back to jail to sit in a cell for a crime that had no victim. What’s more, in a case on Friday, a former city of West Point police officer was given probation, with no jail time and avoided a felony on his record after he pleaded guilty to taking nearly $4,000 from the department’s evidence locker.

He walked out of that courtroom a free man and despite committing a felony offense that cost him his job, his sins were easily forgiven because he obviously has much more to lose in the eyes of the court if he were to face the full consequences of his actions 

Even from an objective standpoint, to call the punishment handed down for this crooked cop a “slap on the wrist” doesn’t quite do justice to the severity of the crime. 

How many people had he put in that very same scenario who were not given even anything resembling the benefit of the doubt? 

Like the young girl charged with possession, the former officer cried in open court and pleaded with the judge for leniency, which he received in spades. Justice may be blind, but it damn sure doesn’t seem to be fair when the scales are tipped to give a more severe punishment for drug possession over the embezzlement of public funds or aggravated assault. 

When looking at drug cases, they are almost always handled with less sympathy if they are classified as a felony offense. Sometimes defendants can get lucky and land in a pre-trial diversion program that yields mixed results, but often those suffering from addiction are treated as hardened criminals. 

I’m not a believer in the “Just Say No,” after-school-special attitude that society is the victim in these drug cases. On the contrary, the victim is often the offenders themselves, who are put through a revolving door corrections system that fails time and again to live up to its name. 

Honestly, the way these cases are handled is not about a victim at all in my opinion. It’s about perpetuating a culture where the problems resulting from addiction are harnessed as a money-making tool for our municipalities and counties. 

That’s not to say pre-trial diversion is not a worthwhile concept. Many people who make honest, human mistakes can take advantage of the program to have their record cleared. What’s more, in Mississippi, those who may not have a high school equivalency can earn their GED free of charge when they are enrolled in the program in certain districts. 

The aforementioned young woman admitted to using meth for the first time when she was 15 years old and, in my novice opinion, has since become a victim of a system that puts a higher premium on punishing drug crimes than many other offenses that have victims and subsequent real-world consequences. 
Did the woman have a record before she was arrested on the meth charge? Of course. But that record, again, was for small-time drug offenses. 

Is she a threat to society? In this reporter’s view, absolutely not.

In Starkville, there is one habitual sex offender who seems to have caught more charges than this young girl has had birthdays. Yet, every time he is arrested for voyeurism or some other crime of a sexual nature, he is back on the street the next day and has become almost a running joke with local law enforcement, evening earning a colorful nickname. 

Despite the fact that his crimes have just about all had victims and consequences that affect people other than the suspect, he rarely has to stay in jail more than a night. But, what does link this offender and the young meth addict is the notion that there are obvious underlying mental health issues there that aren’t being addressed. 

In fact, the reason it is so hard for an offender like this young woman to get the help she needs is that she has what is referred to as a “dual diagnosis,” where she suffers from substance abuse while also being diagnosed with a mental illness for which she takes medication. 

Those classified with a dual diagnosis can more easily be left to rot in jail or prison because many in-patient facilities will not take them. So that presents yet another issue where our efforts fall short to appropriately address mental health problems. 

But if we find an effective way to end the revolving door system and help those suffering from addiction, which could begin with something as simple as adequately funding mental health in Mississippi, then the money generated by state supervision and pre-trial diversion programs will likely take a hit, so what’s the point in that? 

I encourage you to write your local policymakers and your representatives in D.C. and urge them to take a proactive approach to mental health and criminal justice reform. 

Don’t wait until you or a loved one becomes the next victim of this struggling system to admit that we have failed one of the most vulnerable subsets of our society. 

Ryan Phillips is the executive editor of the Daily Times Leader and the Starkville Daily News. The views expressed in this column are his and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of either newspaper or their staffs.