An article in the Post last week about a man in his 70’s exonerated by DNA evidence after 37 years in prison got me thinking about an incident in my time in law enforcement. It was trivial by comparison, a mere vignette, but consistent in character – an insight into attitudes that affect our justice system. I was involved in a drug bust in the late 60’s at a residence north of San Francisco. A lot of agents were involved; we went in force whenever possible to reduce the possibility of resistance and anyone getting hurt. It wasn’t hard stuff, just pot; and some of the offenders were young people just getting high and listening to music. As we were taking people into custody I was processing a young woman who seemed to me innocent of any wrongdoing. She was, essentially, there because she was the girlfriend of one of the guys. As she was tearfully explaining her involvement or rather, non-involvement, to me; I told her that there wasn’t anything I could do but that at her arraignment, if she wanted to explain her circumstances to the judge, she had to plead not guilty. I stressed to her that if she pleaded guilty, it would be “case closed;” she wouldn’t have an opportunity to say anything about any extenuating or mitigating circumstances and would be sentenced on the spot.
My fellow agents either overheard me, or I told them about it. They were furious. If defendants pleaded not guilty, then one or more agents had to appear in court to testify, and that took time and was a bother they didn’t want. So they always tried to persuade people to plead guilty.
That was one of my inklings that they and I were not birds of a feather. I had come into investigations from the commercial side of the agency to work commercial fraud cases. My fellow agents worked mostly drug smuggling cases and had come into the agency from local police forces where they had acquired their attitudes. I got involved in drug busts only when all hands were needed. And to them, by explaining how the system worked to a naïve terrified teenager who had just been caught up in a net, I had only made their job harder. So it was a bit of a relief when I was sent to computer training for five months in New York and transferred to headquarters in DC to work on setting up a new computerized lookout system at the airports and border crossings.
I close with the prayer for Prisons and Correctional Institutions.
Lord Jesus, for our sake you were condemned as a criminal. Visit our jails and prisons with your pity and judgment. Remember all prisoners and bring the guilty to repentance and amendment of life according to your will, and give them hope for their future. When any are held unjustly, bring them release; forgive us, and teach us to improve our justice. Remember those who work in these institutions; keep them humane and compassionate; and save them from becoming brutal or callous. And since what we do for those in prison, O Lord, we do for you, constrain us to improve their lot. All this we ask for your mercy’s sake. Amen.
Ron Hicks, Parish Verger, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Washington DC, 27-January-2015