Saturday, April 26, 2014

Reform or Punishment?

I recently came across one of those news articles that's simultaneously funny and thought-provoking.  It's about a man by the name of Cornealious Anderson who was convicted of armed robbery in St. Louis, Missouri back in 2000 and sentenced to 13 years in jail.  Well, it's now 2014, so my keen mathematical skills tell me that he should be out by now, right?  Half-right.  He's out alright.  In fact, he never went in.

It seems that, at his sentencing, Mr. Anderson was sent home and told to await instructions as to where and when to report for his incarceration.  So he went home, undoubtedly in a bit of a funk, said his good-byes to whatever friends and family he had, called the boss and told him that he wouldn't be in to work for the next 13 years or so, and waited...

A day passed.  A week.  Two weeks.  A month...  and no police officer ever appeared at Anderson's doorstep nor did anyone ever call him on the phone to tell him when and where to report for prison.

Eventually, Anderson got tired of sitting around watching daytime soaps and Opra, waiting for the phone to ring, so he learned a new trade, started a business, met a nice girl, got married and fathered a daughter.  He did not make any attempt to leave the county, change his name or otherwise conceal his identity and he definitely did not return to his former criminal ways.  His brush with the law had scared him straight.  He paid his taxes, registered a small business, renewed his driver's licence as needed and, when he was pulled over for a couple of minor traffic violations, gave the officer his correct name and address.  Nothing in the system ever flagged him as being a convict who was somewhat overdue for incarceration.

Until last year.  Ironically, at just about the time that Anderson would have been released from prison (not taking good behavior into account), the Missouri Department of Corrections discovered the clerical error that had kept Anderson out of jail all these years.  The news article that I read doesn't explain how they discovered the error, but I have to suspect it probably had something to do with some computer read-out announcing that it was time to let Cornealious Anderson go, and only then did the law discover that he had never been locked up anywhere to be let go from.

In any case, when they discovered the error, the Missouri law enforcement community, no doubt somewhat embarrassed by the oversight, decided that "better late than never" is a valid policy where incarceration is concerned, and belatedly sent Anderson his instructions as to when and where to report for prison.  In fact, just to ensure he received the message, they sent a SWAT team to deliver it.

As Anderson tells it, there he was one fine Wednesday morning in July of 2013, feeding his three-year-old daughter breakfast and otherwise minding his own business, when a number of very stern-looking men sporting automatic weapons knocked rather insistently on his door.

It should be pointed out here that Cornealious Anderson never committed any acts of violence.  To be sure, he threatened to when he held up a Burger King restaurant with a BB gun in August of 1999, but the assistant manager there wisely decided to hand over the cash without a struggle and no-one was hurt.  In any case, over the 13 years that ensued, it appears that Anderson has clearly demonstrated that he has mended his ways and has become a law-abiding, tax-paying citizen.  As such, he and his lawyer, Patrick Megaro, argue that incarceration at this point serves no purpose.  Unfortunately, the American Statute of Limitations wasn't quite designed to handle this particular situation.

Asked why he didn't turn himself in, Anderson explains that he just figured that the law didn't care about him any more.  Besides, I have to wonder what, exactly, the law expects a man in this situation to do.  Can you imagine the phone call?  "Hello, Missouri Department of Corrections?  Yeah, my name is Cornealious Anderson.  I was convicted of armed robbery about a month ago and someone was supposed to tell me where to report for jail, but I... what?  Sure, I'll hold..."

The Missouri Attorney General argues that the state is justified in requiring Anderson to serve his full sentence after all this time, and I have no doubt that there are those who would agree.  He committed a crime, he was duly convicted and he has not yet paid the penalty.  But here we have to ask ourselves what is the purpose of prison?  Is it to reform or to punish, or is it both?  If the purpose of prison is to reform, then incarceration is completely unnecessary in this case.  The former criminal has clearly been reformed.  In fact, it might be argued that locking the man up now, taking him from his family and his job and throwing him in amongst a community of hardened criminals only creates the risk of turning him back into a criminal.

If, on the other hand, the purpose of prison is to punish, then I suppose it can be argued that Anderson has not been duly punished for his crime.  I'm not sure exactly what purpose punishing him serves at this point.  Perhaps someone should find the assistant manager of that Burger King that Anderson held up and ask him what he thinks should be done.