“He recognized the fact that he was not an innocent man unjustly punished. He admitted that he had committed an extreme and blameworthy act; …Then he asked himself…whether he had been the only one at fault in his fatal history…. Whether there had not been more abuse on the part of the law, in respect to the penalty, than there had been on the part of the culprit in respect to his fault.”“He asked himself whether human society could have the right to force its members to suffer equally in one case for its own unreasonable lack of foresight, and in the other case for its pitiless foresight; and to seize a poor man forever between a defect and an excess, a default of work and an excess of punishment.” – Les Miserables, Chapter VII, The Interior of Despair
From the Mouth of the LionWe live inside of amazing stories here at Neighborhood Ministries; stories of the lives within our community. Together we are discovering the grace and provision of God, the reality of the social heartache which surrounds us and the calling of God to stand in solidarity against the pain and the unknown. This is one such story. It was a hard day for my friend, Alex. He had had triple bad news. His older brother, an ex-felon but now inner-city pastor in Albuquerque, had died of a sudden heart attack. His younger, special needs brother who has leukemia and for whom he has always been a protector, was in intensive care. But what pushed him over the edge was some foul news from a relative in prison, there was an outstanding warrant for which Alex was culpable. That night he came over to my house for prayer and for a little investigation on the internet. It seemed like the rumor might just be that. [pullquote style=”left”]But the Lord was with me. He gave me power to preach the Good News so all the people who do not know God might hear. I was taken from the mouth of the lion. (The apostle Paul wrote from prison.) -2Timothy 4:17 (NLV)[/pullquote]Alex and his wife, Salena, will tell you that they come from the rough side of our neighborhood. It’s hard to emerge from all of that, to build stable habits and to dream of a different life, but they have. Alex follows Christ; he proclaims this freely and was baptized a few years ago. Both Alex and Salena work at OpportuniTees, our silk screening business. They are good parents, loving people and have a positive influence on all who know them. To tell you the truth, the night I looked Alex up on the internet to find out if he had any outstanding warrants, I knew we wouldn’t find anything. His life of living foolishly was long behind him. And then, a series of unusual incidents brought an old, unsquashed warrant to light. He had no memory of it; there had been no arrest, no indictment, and no known crime, as far as he knew. But there it was, in black and white. Alex had been caught in a sting, selling $50 worth of old prescription medication which belonged to him to an undercover police officer. He had been invited by a relative and chose to meet “the buyer” in order to purchase food for his family; it was years ago. Nevertheless, it was a crime and he would have to be punished. The state gave Alex a very caring lawyer, who was surprised, also, to see this man with so much going for him in trouble. She looked for some way to avoid normal prosecution. Alex made a determined decision to trust God with the process and the outcome. The crime involved drugs and, therefore, falls into the mandatory minimum sentencing laws. It was starting to look as if there would be no way around doing prison time, and the minimum for a drug offense is two years. The thought of this outcome made us all very, very sad. A few of us from church were invited to join the family at the status hearing–This is when the defendant, Alex, his lawyer, the prosecutor and the judge meet more informally to discuss the case and decide whether or not a plea would be offered and accepted. We were allowed to ask questions, as long as it was respectful of the court. Of course, our hearts’ cry was for this good man and father to remain at home, at work and in the community. The judge understood the huge disparity between the crime and its severe punishment. “Change the law,” was the judge’s response to us, “I am bound to uphold it. I am powerless to do any less than give Alex the mandatory minimum sentence.” We left the judge and met privately with the lawyer. We reviewed all that had been discussed and then a brilliant idea surfaced, and my memory has it that it came from the lawyer. “Let’s make a movie about Alex’s story; a short video representation of his day to day life, the beauty of it, reveal the good man that he is. Can you make that happen?” she looked straight at me. “We can,” I responded, “but is it legal?” She laughed, “I can do anything I want in my presentation.” We prayed; we had been praying…prayer became the centerpiece of our approach. Marco, NM’s videographer, got to work. He had only a few days to follow Alex around; Alex would be “free” for less than a week before he would have to begin his jail sentence. The state-assigned mitigation specialist would also begin her work, putting together the story of Alex’s life, demonstrating he deserved a mitigated (lesser) sentence. For example, it had been 14 years since Alex committed his previous crime (he was a teenager then), he held a job, was in good standing in the community, had community support with resources (Neighborhood Ministries), was with/married to the same woman for 13 years, etc. Many of us showed up for court on the day of the sentencing, filling up Alex’s side of the court room. Javier, his brother with cancer and released from the hospital under hospice care, was in the front row alongside his mother, wife and others. The mitigation specialist said she had never seen anything like this. “Most often,” she said, “no one is here for the defendant, not even family.” The projector and screen were set up; we remained hopeful the court would allow the film and the lawyer had made preliminary arrangements we were told. The prosecutor went first and, after giving the situation much thought, he was recommending “just” the mandatory minimum considering the situation, two years. We groaned. Alex’s lawyer’s turn. She began saying that she was going to show a video which she thought would remind the court of this man’s life, “his testimony.” Watching together with Alex in the courtroom was a profound moment. Next, she invited those of us who were prepared to share to do so. We did. Then she closed, making her final arguments. For the first time in our relationship with her, we saw a fiery advocate, someone who found strength to combat the system with an articulate argument for the humanity of not just this case, but countless others (mostly men of color) who fall underneath these drug sentences and then become removed from the family and the community within which they make a positive contribution. Now, it was the judge’s turn. He rehearsed the short details of the case, made comment on the law and the mandatory minimum and then spoke to the man. “I hear your story. And I want to believe it. If it is all true, then it is a terrific problem we have in front of us. I am getting ready to do something I have never done. I am known to this state to be a judge that never gives the most mitigated sentence either in leniency or in severity. But this time, I am compelled to give not just a mitigated sentence, but a super-super mitigated sentence, one I have never given before. You will serve just one year, minus time already served, 10 months.” With that, we stood … stunned … court over … watching Alex and his lawyer hugging. She was crying. Salena said, “For anyone who doesn’t believe in prayer, they will have to remember today.” Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, comments:
We’ve all heard the statistics, but let’s review: The number of people in U.S. prisons and jails has more than quintupled in the past three decades, from fewer than 350,000 in 1972 to more than 2 million today. This incredible increase in incarceration has been disproportionately made up of black and brown people. More African Americans are in the correctional system—imprisoned or on probation or parole—than were enslaved in 1850, 10 years before the start of the Civil War. Due to felony disenfranchisement laws, more African-American men are prohibited from voting today than in 1870, when the 15th Amendment was enacted to make it illegal to deny the right to vote on the basis of race.Alex’s first act in jail was to start a bible study. He believes that God won’t waste this time in his life, so he is finishing his GED and getting some other support services which prison will make available to him. His lawyer thinks he might even have a chance at a further reduced sentence. Today, we remain…prayerful!
For further study in this regard we recommend the following resources:
Lifelines to Healing Campaign @ http://www.lifelinestohealing.org/