Before my Joseph Journey began, before I faced a judge at sentencing, before I was convicted, arraigned, or indicted, before I ever met a federal agent, I believed one of the core purposes of prison was to teach criminals a lesson. Fueled by pop culture cynicism, I might have joked that the lesson learned would likely how to be a better criminal. Yet I believed the lesson should be, “Well, I’m not going to do that again.”
If you’ve read this whole series, you can tell I’ve actually learned a few lessons. The Holy Spirit used prison as a furnace for me in many ways, refining me through experiences I would never have faced in the free world. But that’s not the kind of lesson my younger self would have expected. I would have hoped someone would encounter God and turn from their criminal ways, but I would have expected a new insight into justice. It would have given me a measure of satisfaction to know the system had corrected yet another deviant.
My expectation for a lesson learned would have been based primarily on my faith in the criminal justice system. I often made statements like, “The United States legal system isn’t perfect, but it’s about as good as we can get in a fallen world.”
With a worldview built upon such a foundation, it should come as no surprise that I entered prison determined not to be judgmental but on some level expecting to live amid a bunch of criminal scum. And not the cool Han Solo smuggler scum, but more the villainy in the cantina where we first met him.
And here is where I learned my lesson. I was wrong.
I wasn’t wrong about meeting scum. That element was present, for sure. It was a prison, after all. However, I was shocked to meet so many men that simply did not need to be behind bars.
Now, let me be clear. The cliché of prison is that everyone is innocent, and that cliché holds water. Those people are pretty easy to spot. They cite technicalities, legal loopholes, snitches, and incompetent attorneys. They blow hostility out their butts as often as anything else.
Really, I could count on my hands the number of men who told me their story and followed it with, “And I deserved what I got.” They exist, but they’re the obvious exception.
And both of those groups willfully broke the law. We could debate the need for the laws to exist (or exist as written), but each of those men (those who own their mistakes and didn’t) have earned a punishment for their crime. And they’re not the ones I’m talking about.
Rather, there are men serving sentences for stupid things. An employee checks the wrong box when filling out a form, and the business owner gets a ten-year sentence. A customer commits fraud and the vendor goes to prison for failing to report them. That sort of thing.
Sure, many men had such a story, but after checking out details once I returned to the free world, I learned that many of these men had told the truth. Men put in prison for honest mistakes, for working in the wrong company, for trusting the wrong people.
Here’s where I learned my big lesson.
A Lesson in Institutional Injustice
The lesson isn’t that our criminal justice system is flawed. Rather, it’s that our system is flawed by design.
The Law & Order depiction of dramatic court proceedings doesn’t exist. And it’s not because court proceedings aren’t that dramatic (though there’s truth there). Rather, it’s because few trials ever take place.
In 2013, less than 3 percent of federal cases went to trial. [97% of federal cases resulted in plea bargains](http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2014/11/20/why-innocent-people-plead-guilty/. Roughly 95% of state cases have the same result. And this is ultimately decided by the prosecution, “with the defense counsel having little say and the judge even less” according to US District Judge Jed Rakoff.
This isn’t necessarily an indication of efficient prosecution. One inmate at my facility faced a 30-year sentence if he took his case to trial, a trial his attorney advised him would be a coin toss due to its complexity. Just before trial, he was offered a 30-month plea bargain.
I believe this guy was innocent, but let’s take that off the table. Let’s assume he was guilty, and his crime was so heinous as to call for a 30-year sentence. What business does prosecutor have offering an option that is only 8% of the justifiable sentence? If he was such a risk to society that 40% of his lifetime should have been spent behind bars, it’s a massive lapse in justice to allow him on the streets in 30 months.
I’d feel better if my experiences indicated this as an exception to the rule, but this was common enough to be clearly institutionalized. This is a pressuring tactic, plain and simple. Imagine a car salesman saying, “You can pay $30,000 for this minivan that you don’t need, or you can let twelve strangers decide on a whim if you’re going to buy this $375,000 European sports car.” If you’re legally bound to the agreement, and these are the only options in front of you, you’re likely to give that minivan a closer look at least. Sure you don’t need it, but maybe you can make use of it after all, right? And you can get a lot closer to affording it than that European sports car.
I know several guys who decided to ask twelve strangers because “surely they’ll see I don’t need a minivan, much less a Ferrari.” And their gamble didn’t pay off, and they’d happily accept a literal $375,000 bill rather than the price that metaphor represents.
And worse, the system rewards this sort of action. Every plea bargain is a mark in the “win” column for a prosecutor. And a winning prosecutor is likely to end up as a judge or in a high-paying law firm, depending on if their future is in the public or private sector.
And this is usually enabled by the legislative branch. From what I read, most laws in the higher levels of government need broad, often vague language to get enough votes from both parties to get passed. The resulting law, then, is inherently subject to interpretation and other problems.
Coming to Terms
Before my Joseph Journey, I never knew this all happened. Now, I see the symptoms all around me.
Recently, I was listening to the archive of a podcaster I respect (who is a believer, though for his sake I’ll keep his name out of this), and he described a scene on the news. Apparently, some notable personality had been under investigation by the FBI. And this podcaster summarily dismissed the integrity of this notable personality because, after all, the FBI doesn’t get involved unless you’ve got something to hide.
I nodded when I heard this. I would have responded the same way. I mean, it’s the FBI. But I forget their job is to investigate, to find if someone might be guilty. Public perception has tossed “innocent until proven guilty” out to the wind.
If the lesson I’ve learned is that the criminal justice system is flawed by design, then I must come to terms with the reality that I am not in as much control of my life as I thought. I likely commit felonies all the time without knowing it, and all it takes is a prosecutor with an itch to put me in prison.
And if you’re reading this, you’re in the same place. The only difference is that I really believe it because I’ve seen it. You might believe it, or you might not. Hopefully, you’ll never face such a reality.
There’s the real lesson to learn. I’m not in control of my life.
I’m in control of my responses to the world around me, and to the extent that I have influence I can exert it. However, I don’t exercise ultimate control of my life because other agents (or Agents, in my case) can influence my life as strongly or stronger than I can.
So what hope have we? Should we fear all authority for its abuses and neglect? Must we condemn ourselves or each other for every slight error and fear being hauled off to prison with each infraction?
…well, it’s not all that rhetorical if you know what my answer is…
Of course not! We serve a mighty God, and His mighty influence can be called into action with a mere prayer.
To that end, I prayed that I wouldn’t go to prison. A lot. And I was what many would say “a decent person”. But that’s not how it worked out. I don’t believe the prayers were wasted, but I do believe that I arrived in prison because of the free will of humanity despite the will of God.
But that’s okay. God took care of my family, and He used this time to grow my marriage and my relationship with Him. Here’s where Romans 8:28 really comes into play:
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
Was prison His goal for me? Probably not. But His plan is so wise that it accounted for that possibility, and He was able to use that season to help grow me as a disciple, a husband, a father, and even as a blogger.
In fact, long before we actually launched the site, the idea for theUMB was born within prison walls. If you have ever benefitted from anything you’ve ever read or heard from us, that’s God working for the good of those who love Him. I know He used it for my good, but now He’s using it for yours, too.
That’s the kind of God I serve.
And hey. I got to try trash can apple pie. So there’s that.