The Lady Speaks

Fighting the War on Drugs

Cross-posted at Some Notes on Living

It seems like everyone has a story like this, or knows someone who knows someone who has a story like this. It isn’t meant as anything more than a post on how the War on Drugs affected someone I know. And how mandatory sentencing, without respect for the individual circumstances of each case, has damaged one life.

I have a young friend who – depending on your politics – is either a victim of the War on Drugs or a poster child for the effectiveness of the War on Drugs. I’ve changed her name to preserve her privacy.

First, some background:

I met Anna as a thirteen-year-old girl when she began hanging out with my son and his other friends at our home. Anna was – and is – one of those kids who is worldly in all the wrong ways, and yet remains somewhat naive in others.

She lived with her mother and abusive step-father and three much-younger brothers. Often, she would “sneak” into our home, in order to have a safe place to sleep either because her mother and/or step-father had kicked her out of the house for some infraction of the rules or because she was afraid of being hurt. Once her step-father threw a television set at her, causing a gash that required 10 stitches. Another time, enraged over some minor rule-breaking, he carted all her possessions to the landfill, leaving her with a mattress and one blanket. Her mother once threw her out of the car, forcing her to walk eight miles – in the dark – to my home.

My son tried explaining that she was welcome any time because – as I told him – we didn’t want to have to worry about her being out on the streets. This is a small town, but there are still dangers. I tried letting her know that she could always come to us, any time, but – in my opinion – I don’t think she was ready to believe an adult cared.

Her family has had a history of drug use and alcoholism as long as I’ve known them, and she grew up thinking drugs, alcohol, and abuse were just a normal part of everyone’s life. She once asked my son why I didn’t have any alcohol in the house. His answer (that I don’t drink) was such a surprise to her. She honestly couldn’t imagine any adult going about their daily life without using some form of mind-altering chemical – legal or illegal.

Over the years, she and my son became especially close, and dated on and off, and she began talking to me. At first it was just little things, and then the bigger questions that broke my heart. How did I make the kids behave without using a belt? Did I really like my sister, and why did my family always hug and say ‘love you’ whenever we separated – whether for an hour or a day?

It was literally beyond her comprehension: A family that cared about each other, didn’t use violence or intimidation, who treated her as a respected, intelligent, responsible member of the clan.

We included her in our family events, from birthdays to Christmas celebrations to the “just because” picnics. She babysat for my niece and nephew, played the big sister role to my daughter, and became another grandchild to my mom.

So what happened?


In late 2005, she and her mother became “close” again. Anna soon started hanging out with the wrong crowd, and using drugs. I don’t know how much of this was in response to her breaking up with my son, but this was an issue she and I had discussed previously many times, and one I couldn’t just ignore.

I had, in conversation far prior, told her that no matter what I’d love my kids, but I would not support them if they chose to do drugs. They wouldn’t live in my home, they wouldn’t get their laundry done, they wouldn’t have someone cooking their meals.

It hurt to find out she was using drugs and it hurt to tell her to leave, but I had always held her to the same standards as my own children, and I couldn’t do less now. She moved out. Her new flame was a well-known drug user and seller, but nothing anyone said to dissuade her had much impact.

Then in April, she was arrested in Tioga County NY for selling drugs to an undercover officer. She was riding with someone and (depending on her account or the police report) either was in the vehicle when the drugs were sold, or actually sold them. [In her allocution, she accepted responsibility and told the judge it was the greatest mistake she’d ever made.]

Out on bail, scared to death about going to jail, she went to her grandfather’s home while he was away in Florida and spent 8 days detoxing all alone. God/dess above only knows how she survived. (Perhaps there really is a separate God for fools and children.)

At the end of it, clean, she came and asked to stay with me again. I agreed, but with conditions. Within three weeks, she was working as a part-time dishwasher at a local restaurant, contributing half her pay toward household expenses, and helping out with kids and housework at my home and my sister’s. She worried about her future, stopped wearing the Fiona Apple-style makeup, and started gaining weight.

She began dealing with her court-appointed lawyer, who advised her she wouldn’t win in court and gave her the variety of options offered by the district attorney. Plea to a Class E felony for six months in county jail and five years probation, plea to another class (sorry – can’t remember what) and serve one year in county jail, with six months’ probation.

Or, go to court and risk a five-year state sentence with ten years’ probation.

Being young and naive, she saw only that – with good behavior – she would only have to serve four months in the county jail. What no one told her was that because this was a drug offense, the probation period was going to cause the most problems.

During her first month in jail, Anna began attending chapel services. While I think her newfound faith is real, and that she is deeply committed to learning more about Christ and Christianity, attending chapel is also the only way prisoners get out of their cells on weekends, except for the one-hour visiting periods. Talk about a captive audience.

Perhaps I’m cynical, but I’d probably convert to Satanism if that was the only way out of my cell.

Anna also began studying for her GED, and was just notified last week that she passed it with an excellent score. With the help of counselors at the jail, she began getting more information about local community colleges, and planning on continuing her education after her release. She wrote me, “Can you believe it’s me, making goals?!”

However, certain fields are off-limits. Well, not off-limits, but once your education is complete, the chances of being hired to work in that field are smaller than the proverbial snowball’s chances in hell. Nobody hires a newly-graduated nursing student with a drug conviction. No one hires a newly-graduated school teacher with a drug conviction. Nor do they hire new school bus drivers or new big-rig drivers with drug convictions.

And, even in jobs that have nothing to do with drugs or public safety, a lot of people simply won’t hire anyone with a conviction for any drug-related offense. Heck, KFC will fire you for being arrested on a drug-related charge. You don’t even need to be convicted.

So, here we have a young woman who is serving her time, has become a member of a church, succeeding in getting her GED and is making plans to become employed and to further her education. She has a large support network willing to take her in, help her accomplish her goals, and who are the solid, law-abiding “ordinary” citizens that the government would like her to become.

What Anna needs to fulfill her probation is A) has a place to live, with no one who’s been arrested or convicted of any other crime, B) to become employed within 90 days of her release, and C) to continue drug and alcohol counseling.

Simple, right?

Wrong.

We live in something called The Valley: a “FEMA-designated, disaster-resistant, multi-state community” made up of four towns on the Pennsylvania side of the border and one town on the New York side which all run together, shared roads and all.

Because Anna was arrested on the New York side — and unless we can convince her probation officer otherwise — her probation will have to be served in the county she was arrested in, and will stipulate that she’s not to cross state lines without something called a “visit pass” – no matter the fact that her entire family, her entire support system, is on the other side, less than a quarter to a half-mile away.

If she isn’t allowed to cross state lines, she won’t be able to live with any of the “law-abiding” citizens who has offered her housing; myself, my sister, and our mother included. If she isn’t allowed to cross state lines, she won’t be able to work for anyone hiring on the PA side.

If she can’t come up with a approved place to stay before her release date, May 18th, she will be sent to a locked-down rehab – some hybrid combo of a rehab center and a prison – for three to six months.

Welcome to the War on Drugs.

— Jenn

Postscript: Anna turned 19 the same day she reported to jail.

*

Update: 4/25/07

Must be something in the water today. The General lets his Inner Frenchman talk about his experience in the early 80’s, and how higher education changed his life.

His post also gives us something else to worry about: No financial aid for those convicted of drug-related offenses since the 90’s. Thankfully, Congress is considering changing it.

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April 24, 2007 - Posted by | America, Law Enforcement, War on Drugs

5 Comments »

  1. Thank you PA Lady for gracing notes with this fine thoughtfull and heartbreaking post..i left a huge “note ” back at notes. There is so much reform needed. So much of the love we put into the children is lost with our draconian system..There is another way. There are other types of social service programs for people. Progreams and consequences that do not break the spirit, but redeem and allow a person to succeed and get their lives back. Programs that heal and help people learn from their mistakes isn’t that what Living is supposed to be about ?

    Comment by proudprogessive | April 25, 2007 | Reply

  2. Yes, thank you.
    When we punish our children in ways that take away all hope, we are the ones who fail.
    Our “Anna” is a survivor. So, I have alot of faith in her ability to make a go of it. What we can not do, what the system will do, is just cut the strings once she is out.
    Hilary Clinton wrote, “It Takes a Village to Raise a Child.” This was not an original thought, with her. In the past, townsfolks knew you, knew your family, and kept tabs on everyones’ kids. The neighbors knew your name, where you worked, and when bad times came, so did they.
    America was a good place.
    Your brother Harry likes to say,
    America was Great because it was good.
    When it ceases to be good, it will cease to be great. (I do not know who to credit this to, but it is also not his original thought.)
    Our “Anna” needs good people to watch her, guide her, and love her. Then she can be great.
    If there are any readers in the NY State justice dept, give us some ideas for options.
    We gotta save this kid!!!
    She has so much to offer us all.

    Comment by mom | April 25, 2007 | Reply

  3. PP: Thank you for giving me the opportunity.

    This is why mandatory minimums have to be ended. The drug laws see no difference between the 19yo gangbanger with a long criminal history and the 19yo for whom this is a first offense, who sold a very, very small amount of a drug, and who was already on the path to a good “law-abiding” life as she waited to be sentenced and jailed.

    Mom: Amen. Our Anna can make it, no matter what, but her path will be a whole lot easier with love and support and family along the way.

    It does take a village – but luckily for us, our family is big enough to be a whole village! 🙂

    I hit “Teh Google” to find the quote’s author: Alexis de Tocqueville. (How in the world did we find info before Google??) Smart man, that de Tocqueville. Some of his other gems (written in the early to middle 1800s) :

    “The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money.”

    “No protracted war can fail to endanger the freedom of a democratic country.”

    “As one digs deeper into the national character of the Americans, one sees that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in the answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?”

    And, here we are in 2007, seeing the truth of his words, thanks to El Pollo Loco and his friends and minions.

    Comment by PA_Lady | April 25, 2007 | Reply

  4. PA, I read this post at pp’s and commented there, but I have to also say that it evoked both love and hate in me…love, for the efforts you have made in this girl’s life, showing her a better way to live, giving her hope where little seemed possible; hate for the ignorance and idiotic and shamefull actions in this country that should be a beacon of light and enlightenment to the world.
    I was very moved by both the story and your graceful telling of it.

    Comment by mirth | April 25, 2007 | Reply

  5. Thanks for the kind words, mirth.

    That is the same reaction I’ve had to this nightmare. I’m glad she has the love and support she needs to get through this, but I absolutely hate the way the drug laws have ruined so many lives.

    This lack of consideration for the circumstances, the person(s) involved in each case – it’s just another very Old Testament punishing that requires an otherwise non-violent, non-dangerous convict to spend the rest of their lives paying for a mistake.

    Comment by PA_Lady | April 25, 2007 | Reply


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