A different way
Sometime around May of 2017, someone moved into a house a couple of doors down from us. It didn’t’ take long to realize that the folks who were there were up to no good. Indeed, it seemed pretty classically a drug dealing operation. A bit less than a year later, there was a shooting at the house. Six weeks after that, the FBI raided the house. The raid was part of the largest drug bust in Seattle history. It was crazy.
Wanting to know what was happening with the particular individual who brought this into our neighborhood, I tracked him down in the federal court system, and have followed his case ever since. Last Friday, he was sentenced. He received a total of 66 months in prison plus three years of probation upon release. He’s being sent to Phoenix where there is a drug and alcohol treatment program. I learned this from his sentencing memorandum, which is easily obtainable in the federal court records online.
There were two sentences in the memorandum that stood out to me:
…[L]ike many of the defendants in this matter, [he] comes from an unstable family with a history of parental drug abuse and neglect. He has a documented history of substance abuse and mental health issues….
Two tiny little sentences that put into perspective the entirety of his case — as well as his rap sheet. Much of the memorandum is about this guy’s violent past. He’s had many convictions, starting when he was a juvenile. He’s been shot. He’s dealt drugs and firearms. He’s been a dangerous, scary guy. And there are two tiny sentences that give us some insight into why.
Attached to his file was also a handwritten letter that he submitted to the court. In it he acknowledges his crimes and how his decisions have gotten him where he is (one thing I didn’t mention is that he plead guilty to the charges in this case). He talks about how he found out that he is a father. And he doesn’t want his daughter to be raised in a situation that mirrors the one he came from. It’s hard to read the entire letter, as the copy is pretty horrible, but one gets its meaning pretty quickly.
Sure we can take this with a grain of salt, and probably should. After all, this guy is aobut to spend about five years in a place that is designed to harden him, not heal him. And therein lies the issue.
Those two tiny sentences above reveal a weakness in our way of thinking about criminality and violence. We tend to think of these things as rational choices that “bad” people make. We reduce this down to something in a binary world. But the world is far more complex than that. We tend to make choices rooted in conditioning that we had no say in. I’d be surprised if this man hadn’t experienced severe trauma in his life. What messages did he receive about himself? How is his brain wired to experience the world?
What would it look like to encourage the words he wrote in his letter? To help him heal, and find a new path? What if the option to turn his life toward something life giving was the number one thing to put in the center? We’d have to start by coming from a place that was less about retribution and punishment and more about care and love. Forgiveness isn’t weak. Our system is weak. Giving up on each other is weak.
There was a period where I felt a bit weird by tracking this guy’s case. Now I’m grateful I did. I intend to write him a letter. I want him to know that there are people out here cheering him on. We can all use that sometimes.