Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Let Mike Anderson go

I always feel so much lighter on April 15. Not because of taxes (though I did put those off to the last possible moment this year), but because of that other dreaded project I do every year. It's done now, so forgive me as I look back through interesting news stories a week (or two).

I actually first became aware of this story at least a month or two ago. It's important enough to mention because this case challenges us to stop and think about what we hope to achieve when we prosecute offenders.What is the real goal of a prison sentence? Who benefits when particular offenders are incarcerated? For crimes that involve victims, what do we hope to provide to those victims? And isn't it entirely possible that there are some instances when a prison sentence will actually do more harm than good?

Mike Anderson committed armed robbery in 1999. He was convicted soon thereafter and sentenced to 13 years in prison. His appeals denied by 2002. He had apparently been out on bond throughout the entire process (not unheard of). When his appeal was denied, he should have either been picked up. Some things fall through the cracks, though. Mike Anderson fell through the Missouri Department of Corrections' cracks. They didn't realize they didn't already have him, so they never went looking for him.

In the meantime, Anderson just kept going on with life. Got married, had a kid, started a business, and generally lived an upstanding life. There is no indication of him having any run-ins with the police, any brushes with the law in any way. He by all accounts seems to have done exactly what society should most want from him: he has turned his life around and made a positive contribution to society.

Now, if the DOC hadn't dropped the ball, he would be nearly done with his sentence by now, most likely just released and so just starting the rebuilding process. He wouldn't have started a business, become a football coach, a father. He'd be looking at life now from a very different perspective, and one with a cynical view of our prison culture might wonder if there was really any likelihood of him becoming such a productive citizen. We haven't made it all that easy for inmates with long sentences (13 years is pretty long for these purposes) to take classes, learn skills, and generally be ready to make positive life changes upon release. So maybe the odds of him achieving the things he has if he'd served a decade-long prison term first aren't so great.

In short, not going to prison for all this time probably rehabilitated Anderson far more than any prison term could have done. And yet, the Missouri DOC finally noticed the problem and corrected it. So now, he is about 9 months into this long prison term. His family must survive without him. Who knows what will become of his business. At this stage, people will suffer actual harm from now imposing this sentence, notably his kid, his wife, his employees, the kids he coaches.

Naturally, Anderson's attorneys have filed a motion (though not being versed in Missouri law, I have no idea how likely it is to be successful, or what legal grounds they have, if any). They say even the man who was robbed doesn't see the point of the prison sentence being served at this late date. But the prosecutor seems reluctant to make an exception.

The question here really is, what are we achieving by putting Mike Anderson in prison for 13 years now? Are we just getting some kind of retribution/justice on behalf of the victim? Because the victim doesn't seem to think it's necessary. As a crime victim, this seems like what my reaction would be. If 10 years from now, I learned that the person who broke into my home had spent the last decade building a respectable, law-abiding life, I would take much more satisfaction from that than any prison term. I don't want to "get even" with my burglar in some way; I just want him/her to see the error, to recognize what a deep and personal violation it was, to not do it again.

Are we achieving anything by punishing him just to punish? I guess I don't understand the point of punishment that doesn't have a goal, whether it be to keep society safe (unnecessary based on the life he's led since 1999) or to help that individual learn better ways to live (already done) or just get him to learn that staying out of trouble is better than being in prison (again, already done). 

As for the prosecution's concerns about making exceptions, well, some cases really are exceptional. That's why we have exceptions. Not every case is black and white. Some times weird, crazy, exceptional things happen and we should have the flexibility to deal with them.

Think about all the things Mike Anderson could have done with all this extra time, waiting for his bond to be revoked. (Understand, he did absolutely nothing wrong. He was on release from the court; he was under no obligation to do anything about ending that release.) He could have fled the state, making it difficult for anyone to find him when they were ready to pick him up to start his sentence. He could have committed new crimes, worked out his nerves over the unresolved situation by turning to drugs or alcohol. He could have decided not to seek gainful employment, not to engage in his community. He could have continued on the path he'd been before, making terrible choices that hurt people.

By now putting him in prison to serve 13 years this long after the fact, the state of Missouri is the one making a bad choice. Other young people who commit armed robbery aren't going to get it into their heads that they can "get away with it" if we let Anderson go. The victim isn't going to be put in any danger. There's no bad message sent if Missouri looks at the way Anderson has turned his life around and says, "the prison sentence we ordered over a decade ago isn't what we'd order for the man before us now." This is a fluke situation that should be recognized as such. No one benefits from making him serve this sentence now, but lots of people will be hurt.

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