Thursday, July 12, 2007

The privilege of probation

From today's Ledger & Times.

Let’s play a word association game. I say probation ... and you’ll probably think rehabilitation.

Or troublemaker.

Or punishment.

Thing is, probation is really about a second chance.

Sitting in Calloway Circuit Court earlier this week, I found myself thinking about grace and forgiveness and opportunity. Not reporting to an officer who will verify someone’s employment, complete a slightly invasive drug screen and get tabs on John Doe’s whereabouts.

OK, so that’s part of probation, but it’s not the point.

The point is John Doe isn’t in jail. Rather he’s working to support himself and likely a wife and children. And he’s living at home and not in the close quarters of a cell.

Let’s take our hypothetical John Doe. Say he was arrested on some marijuana charges, and he had some rolling papers and scales close by. Long story short, he spends a few nights in jail then family members help him hire a defense attorney who works out a deal with the prosecutor.

And the deal is probation. No jail time. Well, no jail time as long as he stays out of trouble. Stays away from the bad crowd.
Doesn’t revisit his friend, Mary Jane. Doesn’t drink alcohol. Works. Reports to that probation officer.
Pretty clear. And, seriously, seems like a good deal to me.

And it must have seemed like a good deal to John Doe because he took it when he pled guilty. He told the judge those conditions were OK because, after all, there was prison time hanging over his head.

Then the good deal turns sour when the probation officer learns John Doe smoked pot recently and kept alcohol in his house. Doing his job, the officer brings probation of violation charges, landing John Doe back in court and probably a few more nights in jail.

Yes, John Doe is fictional. But the scenario really isn’t. At least a half dozen such cases were in court earlier this week. Not all of them were about marijuana. But substitute public intoxication. Or factor in driving on a suspended license. Or couple the illegal drug and alcohol and a dangerous weapon. Whatever the specifics, people went against the deal that kept them out of jail.

Guess what happened? Yep. Handcuffed.

Dennis Foust has spent a decade on the circuit court bench and was a district judge before that. He’s seen his share of John Does. And his philosophy is clear: Smoke dope while on probation and go to jail.

He said it more than once Monday morning.

The probation violations were getting to him. He offered advice to a couple of people before his bench. He lectured a few others. And he followed through on the broken deal.

“People say, ‘Don’t you feel bad when you send someone off to jail crying,’” Foust said in court. “Yeah, I feel bad. But not that bad because everyone makes a choice.”

Ah, choices. John Doe should have made some better ones. He had another chance.

Another person -- let’s call him Jim Doe -- struck up one of these good deals on Monday morning. With his attorney by his side, he accepted it quickly. No questions asked. He said he understood what his probation meant.

Judge Foust wished Jim Doe luck. But, you know, it’s not really about luck. It’s about embracing the second chance and making the choices that don’t lead back to that court room in front of that judge.

It’s about making the most of the good deal.

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