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Help Thy Neighbor and Go Straight to Prison (nytimes.com)
44 points by nkzednan 1503 days ago | hide | past | web | 30 comments | favorite

The gaps in Kristof's narrative really highlight how he's trying to spin a story out of this:

1) Why didn't he dispose of the shotgun shells? Surely someone told him that as a convicted felon he wasn't supposed to possess firearms or ammunition?

2) What led him to be suspected of the burglary?

3) He notes: "Then Young became a suspect in burglaries at storage facilities and vehicles in the area, and the police searched his home and found the forgotten shotgun shells as well as some stolen goods." He keeps mentioning the shotgun shells, but never returns to the issue of the stolen goods found in Young's house.

I agree with the sentiment of the article. Minimum sentence laws are wrong. Felon in possession laws are wrong. The disabilities applied to convicted felons after they've served their time are wrong. The U.S. imprisons too many people, especially in states like California where there is an toxic amalgam of scared suburbanites, police and prison workers unions, and for-profit prison companies that have created an unsupportable situation.

BUT: the fact that the author has to resort to presenting a story that's as much of a mixed bag as Daniel Young's should give you some pause. It should give you some perspective of the scale of the problem.

Kristof's exaggeration is unnecessary ("totally innocent people sent to jail just for helping their neighbor!"). I once had to watch a sentencing hearing for a class. The guy was a scumbag. Drug dealer (not the harmless neighbor kid who deals pot mind you), had two kids with two different women but didn't support either of them. One of the moms came to testify that he was trying to be more of a father to her kid recently and that imprisoning him would destroy that. The judge handed down I think a 15-20 year sentence based on the raft of prior enhancements (I think he had assaulted his other baby momma, did some burglaries, etc). He was not an innocent guy. At the same time, it was unnecessary to sentence him to 15-20 years. Our sentences are just too damn long, even if they are mostly applied to scumbags.

>1) Why didn't he dispose of the shotgun shells? Surely someone told him that as a convicted felon he wasn't supposed to possess firearms or ammunition?

I'm not sure that a "why not?" like that is a gap. I'm also not convinced that anyone would have told him that. You're generally just supposed to know the law. Nobody necessarily tells it to you.

If you're exiting prison, someone does generally tell you of the terms of your release. I'd also imagine that sort of knowledge becomes common among prisoners and ex-convicts.

"You're generally just supposed to know the law. Nobody necessarily tells it to you."

If no one tells you, then how are you meant to know?


That's been the practice since Roman times.


That was a reasonable principle up to about a century ago, when statutory law started growing out of control and drowning out other more stable and sensible sources of law.

When legislatures churn out volumes and volumes of bills every single year, "ignorantia juris non excusat" non excusat.

On top of that, what ever happened to mens rea being a necessary element of culpability? Why are all of these malum prohibitum laws strict liability offences?

Kafka wrote something about that ;)

Go read it in a book, or consult a lawyer and pose questions to him/her. Most cities and countries operate free law libraries where you can peruse these topics in as much detail as you care to. Like most things these days, it's incredibly easy to look it up online if you don't feel like going to a library.

An excellent question. Basically, the law is absurd and horrible in almost every conceivable way, and designing a system of law that is otherwise is nontrivial.

there is always something more to the story. however, the author does note that the burglary charges against Young are dropped. it is implied by the article that the only crime he is convicted of is of possessing the shells.

if that's false, then Kristof is just lying. if it's true, then I don't think that you have much room here to ask things like 'oh surely he knew what he was doing was wrong'.

Young was indeed back to committing burglaries[0] and even had his son tag along to help load the loot into his vehicle. So, Kristof lies. It's obvious the state charges against Young were dropped only because his federal conviction and sentence makes the state case a waste of time.

From the Chattanoogan[1], October 06, 2011:

    HIXSON, 37343 41 Chattanooga BURGLARY 
    THEFT OVER $500 
    THEFT UNDER $500 
    THEFT OVER $1000 

The law ought to be changed to allow the judge more discretion in sentencing, however.



Well, he's convicted of possession because he already had 12 felony convictions under his belt when he was caught with the ammo. As Rayiner says, the appropriate thing to do would have been to get rid of it in some fashion.

it sounds like the type of piece one might hire a reputation management firm to write.

Our betters love gun control and don't believe that anyone committing a felony deserves to possess any, or ammo in this case.

Given how harshly "citizens" with no records are often treated for the same thing, I have mixed feelings about this case. E.g. any "citizen" of Massachusetts doing this without having a state Firearms Identification Card would be going to jail for 1 year, no judicial discretion allowed. One of the first cases was a teen who borrowed the jacket his father had used for hunting, which had a leftover shotgun shell or two.

I don't think that's about gun control, but about America's hostility to post-sentence reinstatement - ex-felons also find it hard to vote, have to ID themselves as ex-felons for the rest of their life on job applications etc. etc.. At least there's some rational basis for restricting them from owning firearms if they have a documented history of violence.

That is because Traditionally a "Felony" Normally was a Violent act.

Today however any crime that could warrant over 1 year in prison is a "felony" couple that with the "war on drugs" and other "war on"'s that have greatly increased sentencing lengths now you can get a felony for pretty minor things.

Most states even have what are referred to as "catchall" felonies, things like "common nuisance" that can be charged with the sole purpose of getting a plea bargain for a lesser charges.

In Short the Legal System is a mess.

"At least there's some rational basis for restricting them from owning firearms if they have a documented history of violence."

Not that it doesn't support your thesis, but all felons are banned. Even those guilty of e.g. environmental "wetlands" (based on law about navigable waters) "crimes" absolutely lacking in mens rea (guilty mind; feel free to substitute your own favorite ludicrous felony).

Many states have a procedure for getting those rights restored. You might find this article of interest: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/14/us/felons-finding-it-easy-... See also: http://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&q=firearm+rights+res... although I've only skimmed this one as my printer's broken.

Come on. Guns are only for police, military, rich people, and celebrities. Now how about I give you a slightly bigger mortgage interest deduction to take this off your mind?

Surprisingly, this article omits to mention that the DoJ is asking the US Sentencing commission (and independent statutory body) to dial back mandatory minimum sentencing: http://www.justice.gov/criminal/foia/docs/2013annual-letter-...

So a white guy gets targeted by the laws meant for minorities, and all the sudden the walls are falling down?

People who write NYT op-eds don't notice when it happens to black people, sure, but that doesn't mean the author of the linked page only wants the laws fixed for white people...

He even points out the disproportionate effect on minorities later in the article; he's not ignorant of it.

Point by point:

"He later found, mixed in among them, seven shotgun shells, and he put them aside so that his children wouldn’t find them. "

Ok so why did he "put them aside". Why is this taken as a fact anyway?

"“He was trying to help me out,” Mumpower told me. “My husband was a pack rat, and I was trying to clear things out.” "

Why does this matter at all? The fact that he was helping her and the fact that he held on to the shells has nothing to do with anything.

"Then Young became a suspect in burglaries at storage facilities and vehicles in the area, and the police searched his home and found the forgotten shotgun shells as well as some stolen goods. "

but then:

"It didn’t matter that the local authorities eventually dismissed the burglary charges. "

So we find out that he was enough of a suspect to be charged with burglary. (Not a big deal but not the same as "walking through his house they saw shells" or anything like that. Apparently even though he had committed no crimes since 1996 there were circumstances that made him a suspect in a burglary.

"So the federal government, at a time when it is cutting education spending, is preparing to spend $415,000 over the next 15 years to imprison a man for innocently possessing seven shotgun shells while trying to help a widow in the neighborhood. "

What does education spending being cut have to do with anything? What does the amount they are going to spend have to do with anything? What does the fact that he was "innocently possessing" have to do with anything? I didn't know that that mattered and of course where is the proof that he was "innocently possessing" or is that just a conclusion that Kristof came to?

" With less than 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States has almost one-quarter of the world’s prisoners. "

Why does this matter at all? So other countries don't lock up as many people. Who cares about a comparison like this other than to try to get people all emotional about this case (clearly the point quite obviously "ah the injustice of it all").

"Almost everyone seems to acknowledge that locking up vast numbers of nonviolent offenders is a waste of money. California devotes $179,400 to keep a juvenile in detention for a year, and spends less than $10,000 per student in its schools. "

Who are the "everyone" and why does it matter comparing prison spending to education? They are two different things. People get locked up in prison when they break laws. Stick to the argument of the law part don't say "we could feed 10000 hungry children if we didn't lock this guy up".

"Granted, mass incarceration may have been one factor in reduced crime in the last couple of decades; there’s mixed evidence."

The NYT "to be sure" phrase. I'm surprised there is only one of these in the opinion.

" One careful study of 35,000 young offenders by Anna Aizer and Joseph J. Doyle Jr. reached the startling conclusion that jailing juveniles leads them to be more likely to commit crimes as adults. "

"One study" - speaks for itself. So what. One study.

Etc. Etc.

Sure it's an opinion piece. I know. Just pull at the heart strings with a compelling story and we will all fall for it.

I agree with the article's basic premise, but it's very poorly argued. I suspect that's why it doesn't include a direct reference to the case in question (US District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee 1:12-cr-00045-1). I obtained and uploaded the prosecution's sentencing memo, for reference: http://www.scribd.com/doc/159437911/12-cr-00045-36

It pisses me off that NYT columnists/researchers and journalists in general are too lazy to spend the 5-10 minutes it requires to make original documents available to readers.

The sentencing memo tells a very different story than the Times article, and suggests that Young didn't "turn his life around". In particular, Young confessed to the burglary that he was suspected of, and was in possession of several of the stolen items. (We don't know why those charges were dismissed, but perhaps it was because the local authorities didn't think it was worthwhile to pursue a case against someone who'd be in federal prison for a longer term than he could get for the burglary charges.)

From the sentencing memo:

On October 1, and October 3, 2011, the Chattanooga Police Department (“CPD”) received reports of several burglaries of storage building and vehicles. There was video surveillance of the areas burglarized and a suspect car was identified which CPD Detective Tomisek was able to trace to the defendant. On October 5, 2011, Detective Tomisek went to the defendant’s residence and received consent to search from the defendant. Detective Tomisek and two other officers witnessed the defendant sign a written consent to search from for, among other places, the defendant’s residence.

Detective Tomisek found several stolen items and seven shotgun shells. The shells were in a box in a chest of drawers next to the defendant’s bed. While Detective Tomisek was holding the shells in his hand, the defendant voluntarily stated that they were his. The defendant later gave a taped statement in which he confessed to the burglaries. The defendant admitted to having his son help him load the stolen property into his car. The defendant was a convicted felon at the time he possessed the ammunition having sustained at least the following felony convictions: four Aggravated Burglaries, three Burglaries, five Thefts.

What does the amount they are going to spend have to do with anything?

It's important because that money isn't simply burnt; there's a lot of people riding on it, and lobbying to maintain the status quo.

> What does education spending being cut have to do with anything?

Nothing, but it was clearly put in to put societies slanted priorities. That is, sending people to prison >> children education

Cases like this are one of the reasons pardons exist.

Ha, that's only for the rich and powerful who have bought influence with the Administration.

You know that whole "ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" that people always like to apply to people receiving the sentences? That goes for the sentences themselves (that is to say, it would be better if innocent people didn't have to gamble on perhaps being pardoned, but weren't charged or wrongly convicted in the first place).

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