I saw this CNN news item on Twitter today. This 63 year old black man has been in jail since 1997 (23 years) for the crime of the attempted stealing of hedge clippers, which would ordinarily cost under $50. The Louisiana Supreme Court refused to review his life sentence. He does have a rap sheet. One of the past crimes was for attempted armed robbery for which he did 10 years of hard labor, but the rest of them were comparatively minor – possession of stolen property in 1987, attempted forgery of a $150 check in 1989 and burglary of a house in 1992.
Here is a summary of some of the tweeted responses.
a) Some tweets claimed that CNN was lying or leaving something out to tilt the story.
b) Some tweets cited the man’s previous crime history since 1979, for which he had already done time. They said he had been given enough chances and since he did not take those chances, now it was time to put him away for good. According to them, you have to take into account the man’s previous crimes. For example, if you have murdered somebody and served your time, you will get a life sentence even if you steal somebody’s pen after that (which sometimes may cost more than $50). Also, it seems the concept of proportionality – that the punishment should be proportional to the crime – does not and should not hold in such cases.
c) Some justified the sentence by taking the man’s assumed potential and inevitable future crimes into consideration. He might rape and / or kill somebody if he remained outside, they said. What if he does something to a member of your family, they asked. Would you allow him to live in your neighborhood?
d) Some were against the sentence but only because it was too expensive. It would cost the government upwards of a million dollars to keep him in jail. The administration of many US jails is outsourced to contracting companies which have been accused of lobbying courts to hand out quick and long sentences to criminals, since their profitability is largely based on number of prisoners.
e) Some said they were also very poor and struggled but that didn’t make them commit crimes. ‘Don’t commit a crime if you don’t want to do the time’.
f) One person said ‘the only people who find it easy to breathe are the ones who don’t commit felonies. Obviously, a Floyd reference and basically, which means, shoot the rest.
I learnt of ‘Pigs Laws’ that were enacted after the Civil War by some southern states which introduced extreme sentences for petty theft, such as stealing cattle and swine, that criminalized recently freed African Americans who were still struggling to come out of poverty. This was done basically to re-enslave black people who were free after the war. So you put in place so many laws that you can’t but stumble over one of them.
To be fair, there was spirited support from people who identified and condemned this sentence as racist. Quite a few said that a white man would not have got such a harsh sentence. But I was shocked by the ferocity and viciousness of an equally vociferous crowd that fully supported the sentence. To me it seemed the latter group was numerically larger and louder by far than the ones who cried foul, but that is just my opinion.
But why should I be shocked? Just a couple of months ago, during the Rayshard Brooks episode in Atlanta, there were many people who claimed that since Brooks had physically fought with the policemen before trying to flee, he deserved to be shot in the back when he was running away. It was okay to kill a man in cold blood if he laid hands on an officer of the law.
The first thought that came to my mind when I stared reading the responses was involuntary – this US Presidential election is going to be close again. Maybe it is unfair but I don’t know why I thought that. Or maybe I do. Law and Order.
Do Black Lives Really Matter in America? Will they ever?