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Burnett's Urban Etiquette

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Why politicians bite so much

Let's turn our imaginations on high for a moment.

Remember what we used to say as kids when we lost a foot race to another kid wearing new Nikes or Pro-Keds? "His shoes made him run fast." It wasn't that he was a fast kid, who happened to have new shoes. It was the shoes that gave him the speed, we thought.

OK, now try this one on: Let's say that I have detected a pattern of single family homes catching fire in the ABC neighborhood. Not every home in the area catches fire. But among those that do, the result of the fires has been that each flaming house was doused with water, which caused severe water damage to each property.

Do you (A) demand an investigation into why houses in the ABC neighborhood are suffering so much water damage? Or do you (B) demand to know what all the damaged houses have in common that causes them to catch fire, and why it is that some houses in the burn zone are unscathed?

Please, please, please tell me your answer is "B." But sadly, if your answer was "A" you are not alone.

A few weeks ago in my former home state of Wisconsin, Gov. Jim Doyle formed a panel to study and investigate why so many state prison inmates are black and why the numbers are disproportionately high to the state's black population.

I'm not naive. I know that this country has had a history of unbalanced sentencing for criminal behavior. I know that there are people in jail today in some places who might have gotten probation for certain offenses if they'd been sentenced in other places. One need only turn to New York City in the mid- to late 1980s to see how crack or rock cocaine dealers were sentenced to lengthy, mandatory prison sentences, while powder cocaine dealers were sentenced to significantly lighter punishments. I know that the criminal justice system has treated black males more harshly in many places than white males who commit the same crimes.

It's not a felony matter. But I remember in college being pulled over by a cop (a black cop, not that it matters) who ordered me to pull what he said were illegal custom tint panels off my tail lights and headlights. I later fought it and won, 'cause like I'd tried to tell him my tint panels had been made to state specs and were very much legal. Anyway, I cut my fingers to shreds pulling those things off my lights. But my alternative at the moment, the cop said, was to leave the panels on and he'd have my truck towed. Fast-forward a couple of weeks. On the same strip of road I'm riding in the passenger seat of a buddy whose vehicle has illegal limo-tinted windows - so dark, it's like they're painted black. After scolding my buddy for the tint, the officer sent us on our way.

The answer, folks, is not to lighten one group's punishment to even things out. If Fred got away with murder, and Joe got 20 to life for murder, don't let Joe go. Give Fred 20 to life and put him in the cell next door to Joe.

But another answer lies in what we study and investigate about the commission of crime. Sure sentencing disparities bother me. But it bothers me even more that so many young guys are doing things that get them locked up in the first place.

I'm sure Gov. Doyle means well with his panel studying sentencing disparities. But I'd much rather see a panel studying why so many young men test the criminal waters at an early age, what are they missing at home, who and what are influencing them as children, what value systems are they being instilled with? I want a related panel to study the kid in a depressed neighborhood who doesn't do crime, and instead gets good grades and goes to college.

I want to see fewer young men end up in gated communities. But it's even more important that before they even get inside we make sure they and their parents have AND use the tools they need to develop a strong sense of right and wrong and good and bad and to be productive and stay on the right side of the law.

OK, I'm done. That's my grandfatherly rant for the day.

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  • I want a related panel to study the kid in a depressed neighborhood who doesn't do crime, and instead gets good grades and goes to college.

    Me too. Let's not get carried away and start explaining away criminal behavior. Let's do a favor to kids in every community a favor and figure out how to prevent them from going down that road at all.

    I like your grandfatherly rants.

    By Blogger Queen of Dysfunction, at 4:22 PM  

  • It's a cycle of poor parenting. not sure where it started.

    My kids are adopted from, druggies and abusive drunks that chose their habits over their children. The kids were well on their way to following in their biological parents footsteps.

    Now they are in a stable home with hard working attentive parents that don't put up with crap. The kids are happy, well behaved and well adjusted now...go figure.

    By Blogger Hammer, at 4:57 PM  

  • This might be bit off topic, but when you won, did they pay for you to get the tint replaced? It seems only fair, no?

    By Blogger Claudia, at 5:26 PM  

  • It's a shame that racism is still very prevalent in our justice system.

    I work with at risk families, so I see these kind of things happening all the time. I think things are much better than 10 years ago, but that doesn't justify the injustice currently going on.

    Oh, and in Bloomington three white kids were dealing cocaine in a posh apartment complex and they got a mere slap on the wrist recently. I guarantee if it was a person of color they would've done jail time.

    By Blogger Evil Spock, at 5:49 PM  

  • I also forgot to mention that many folks (black and white) do time because they can't afford better lawyers.

    Public defenders are barely better than whale snot in the courtroom.

    By Blogger Hammer, at 7:39 PM  

  • The odds is what it boils down to. If you are around enough sick and germy people it's bound to rub off. The parents are like the immune system ... it can only do so much. The social environment is the attacking parasites that are always ready to take over if we let them. The rest of society like school and the good of the community are just like vitamins. Only so much of it is absorbed by our bodies and the rest flushed out - the difference is we have free will - we don't have to flush it all out but many of us choose to or are weakened enough by social parasites to the point where we just end up where we end up.

    By Blogger C, at 10:20 PM  

  • As usual, you just make a lot of sense, James. I agree with your assessment.

    How's Mrs. B doing? I hope she's feeling better!

    By Blogger bc, at 10:32 PM  

  • i don't know if i'd give the guy too hard a time.

    undertaking a cultural and socioeconomic study of that magnitude and specificity is enormous. sounds like he's at least trying to do what he can on the sentencing end.

    i understand your point, however.

    by the way, you're the first fellow newspaper features writer i've had the pleasure of communicating with via weblog.

    go dolphins!

    By Blogger eric, at 11:15 PM  

  • Queen, thank you. I know the solution, and for a moderate fee I'll tell the politicians...What the hey. It's free: HOME TRAINING and PRIDE, people!

    Hammer, no pun intended, but you've nailed it again. Kudos to you for being a good parent to kids who didn't have one before you.

    Claudia, they didn't replace anything. Nothing. It ended up costing me extra - not just the price of the 1/4 inch thick custom cut tint panels, but having the remnants properly removed/cleaned off all my lights.

    Evil Spock, I feel ya. The injustices still exist. I just don't want some at risk kid or that kid's parents getting lax and losing motivation to do right 'cause someone else got away with a crime.

    Hammer, great point about the public defenders. I got to know a few back in Milwaukee. And while they tried - some of 'em did, anyway - they were just always outmatched. If I were facing capital charges and had a PD I might just consider saving the state some time/money and go begin my sentence 'cause I wouldn't have a ton of faith in my representation.

    C, that's a good breakdown. I like how you framed it. Still, I believe in that whole "takes a village..." thing. So if all the parents did right by their kids in depressed areas they could form a strong, unified supplement to that "immune system."

    BC, as always thank you. And Mrs. B is feeling a lot better. She was back in her classroom w/her students on Tuesday...against doctor's orders. And she got really tired really fast, but otherwise she's OK - staying out of the classroom the rest of the week for a little more recuperation.

    By Blogger James Burnett, at 11:19 PM  

  • Eric, gotta support my fellow feature writers.

    I do give Doyle a little credit for trying to address something. I'm just sick of politicians addressing crime after-the-fact. Do these kids some good. Study their home lives so you can recommend some good sense to their parents, so the kids in turn never end up in prison.

    Hmmm, in terms of proximity, go Panthers! I will be back to read more of your blog, comrade.

    By Blogger James Burnett, at 11:21 PM  

  • The inequallity in sentencing is pretty broad. I'm not in a position to agree or disagree about ethnicity being the cause. I just know when I read the sentencing in the newspapers I often wonder why there isn't more consistency.

    By Blogger Pamela, at 11:45 PM  

  • It is a puzzling issue, Pamela. But again, I don't want authorities to lower sentences to even things out. I want 'em to raise sentences so that everyone who "qualifies" gets a tough sentence.

    By Blogger James Burnett, at 12:27 AM  

  • How did Governor Doyle respond when you sent him a letter stating, "I'd much rather see a panel studying why so many young men test the criminal waters at an early age ..."

    By Anonymous The Sarcasticynic, at 6:54 AM  

  • yes but without them... who would we laugh at or sneer at???

    oh wait... we have celebutants for that. lol

    By Blogger Yasamin, at 9:13 AM  

  • Sarc, is that a trick question? I didn't send a letter. This blog posting was my letter.

    Yas, yes, we well always have celebutants to sneer at.

    By Blogger James Burnett, at 9:53 AM  

  • You're indeed a much gentler alternative to Bill Cosby. Good things.

    By Blogger Matt, at 10:23 AM  

  • You're indeed a much gentler alternative to Bill Cosby. Good things.

    By Blogger Matt, at 10:24 AM  

  • Incidentally, I made the mistake of asking a large, rotund African American man today about his opinion on whether it was "going to warm up around here soon."


    By Blogger Matt, at 10:26 AM  

  • Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Matt, that is a perfect example of where PC has spawned an irrational fear of being offensive. I have a metal plate in my left knee - the result of too many reconstructive surgeries. The surgeries sped up the onset of arthritis in that knee. Now, between the plate and the arthritis my knee hurts a lot; it's almost constant pain, though most of the time it's minor and barely noticeable. But when there is a severe swing in the weather coming I swear I can tell 'cause the aching in my knee will go haywire. So if you had asked me the same question I'd have answered, not thinking about race - cause logic wouldn't lead me there, but thinking about my knee-weather satellite instead.

    Just curious, he didn't get angry with you did he? That really would be irrational.

    By Blogger James Burnett, at 10:42 AM  

  • James, no trickery, just sarcasm. That's my way of saying, "Well, it's great you're blowing off this steam, and I ASSUME you have also shared your sentiments with those who helped cause your reaction, so what was their response?"

    By Anonymous The Sarcasticynic, at 11:42 AM  

  • Man James...that bites. That sort of crap just makes my blood boil. The guy is a major butthead to you and you end up having to pay for it. I hate that.

    By Blogger Claudia, at 12:03 PM  

  • The chief reason for crime is lack of meaningful opportunity for earning income lawfully. In most cities, there is no base of industry which relies upon skilled labor that will allow people who do not attend or complete a 4 year college (75-80% of the population) a chance to earn a middle class livelihood. These kids--their parents don't work in a factory or build things so they don't see how hard work is rewarding. The one industry available in every major city that will pay you enough to enjoy a middle class lifestyle is the black market underground. That includes vice services (drugs, whores, gambling, smuggling) and wealth redistribution via robbery, theft, scams, and hustles.

    Until we address the loss of meaningful industry (infrastructure construction, creation and assembly of large ticket consumer items, etc.) that will support the middle class, we will get nowhere on the uptick in crime and its relative incarceration rates. They are correlated and cannot be addressed alone.

    If you get a chance, watch Bastards of the Party on HBO--it's about the formation of Crips and Bloods gangs in LA, but its story on the loss of lawful employment opportunities in poor and middle class communities is allegorical for every major American city.

    By Anonymous mvuys, at 4:17 PM  

  • mvuys is Big Daddy

    By Anonymous Big Daddy, at 4:17 PM  

  • I'll bet if you could look at the Motor Vehicle Code that was in force at the time (and State) of your tinting incident, you'd find that the cop could neither force you to remove the tinting on the spot, nor threaten to tow away your vehicle.

    A similar incident happened to me in Calif. Cop pulls me over for having tinted driver and passenger windows, a no-no in that state. Gave me what they called a "fix it" ticket. I had a certain number of days, (I think it was less than a week,) to have the tinting removed and to bring the car to some CHP office where they would inspect to ensure the windows were clear and sign off on it, in order for me to avoid paying a fine.

    After getting the tinting removed, I drove up to the CHP. I walk in, hand the guy the ticket, and he signs it WITHOUT getting up out of his chair, (leaving his precious donuts,) to look at my car!

    By Anonymous The Sarcasticynic, at 4:53 PM  

  • my mom had an ankle weather satellite. she just got it removed 2 weeks ago. now.. she just has a souvenier.

    By Blogger Yasamin, at 11:50 PM  

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