I’m super excited to have been invited to join a blog group alongside three talented bloggers. Each week, one of us chooses a topic and we all post a blog entry on that topic, usually on Thursdays.
Here are the links to the other fabulous blogs:
This week, Moma Rock asked our thoughts on the following article:
The story involves a man in St. Louis who was found guilty of armed robbery in 2000 and sentenced to thirteen years in prison. However, through some administrative oversight, Cornealious Anderson was never told when or where to report. And, so, in no real hurry to get behind bars, Anderson went about his life. He married, he began and grew businesses, he paid taxes. Anderson never hid; he didn’t change his identity or even leave the area. Fourteen years later, the State of Missouri realized its mistake. It sent a SWAT team to his house and arrested him and threw him into prison, where he now sits. Anderson has appealed to Missouri courts, asking to be released, but the Missouri Attorney General is opposing Anderson’s request, arguing Missouri is “justified” in now imprisoning Anderson – fourteen years after his conviction and a year after his original sentence would have ended (assuming he served 100 percent time, which seems unlikely; he probably would have served 50 or 85 percent time).
At the heart of the Yahoo article, of course, is the question of whether Anderson “deserves” to serve his sentence now, all these years later. The article assumes one of the aspects of a prison sentence is rehabilitation and suggests that because Anderson has lived a pretty clean, upstanding life in the past fourteen years, he doesn’t need additional rehabilitation and, as such, does not need to be imprisoned.
But, sadly, although one of the goals of imprisonment is rehabilitation, prison isn’t really about that. Prison is meant to punish. It is meant to contain and to prevent. Mostly, thought, it is meant to penalize. While it is true some people leave prison rehabilitated (whatever that means), it is also true that more exit prison worse off. Offenders learn things in prison. Not good, helpful things. Things like how to be a better criminal. Of course, this isn’t universally true, but it’s true enough. The people who want Mr. Anderson behind bars aren’t interested in rehabilitating him – they are interested in his pound of flesh.
Perhaps Mr. Anderson owes as much: to society, to the person he robbed, to the Burger King franchise owner whose business was affected. Perhaps Anderson’s neighbors – who only now know his past – will sleep better at night with him locked up. Maybe the cashier who had a (BB) gun pulled on him will rest more easily, as well. I don’t know. No one does. But Anderson committed a crime, and he received a sentence, one he never served through no fault of his own. It seems “fair” (whatever that means) that Anderson at least see the inside of a prison.
Indeed, this situation begs the question of fairness from so many angles. Is it fair for Anderson’s good, decent life to now be upended because the State of Missouri messed up years ago? Shouldn’t the State be subject to a sort of statute of limitations, one much shorter than a decade and a half? Indeed, forcing Anderson to serve time now comes at a much higher price than had he served fourteen years ago, long before he formed a family and started a business and owned a home. Through that lens, imprisoning Anderson just doesn’t seem right.
Although I’m wired to be a defense attorney, I see both sides of this situation. To me, the fairest solution is to have Mr. Anderson serve some time, but not the amount originally mandated by the court (which, by the way, seems pretty high considering the offense and Anderson’s minimal criminal record). Anderson messed up – but so did the State of Missouri. Both need to make the situation right.
Of course, I expect nothing less than the State of Missouri to take a hard-ass approach. Remember, we must be Tough on Crime! But I truly don’t see the benefit of taking such a tack here. As a lawyer, I’ve learned an important lesson over the years: each case – each defendant – is different. The facts matter; indeed, all a judge or jury has to work with is the facts and the law . . . which must be applied to those facts. Often, this lesson is lost in the steamroller that is the criminal justice system. Cases such as this one highlight the importance of looking beyond the offense but at other factors, too: the defendant’s life, the context in which the crime was committed, even the timing.
I hope Missouri finds a happy medium here, one that is “fair” both to society and to Mr. Anderson. The defense attorney inside me is skeptical, of course, but I’d love to see the Show-Me State (whatever that means) get it right. However, considering just yesterday Missouri executed a convict, I’m not super optimistic. And so I will wish Mr. Anderson well, and I will wish for justice.
Whatever that means.