PUNISHMENT: a criminal justice allegory

by Jodi Hansen

Jessica and Anita were the closest of sisters. Only 18 months apart in age and one year apart in school gave many folks in their small town the impression they were twins. After attending college out of state, they returned home and married local men within two years of each other. Kids soon followed and between the two of them they bore seven children over a ten-year period.  But, the demands of life, work, and children never got in the way of their weekly coffee dates where they shared each other’s trials and triumphs over lattes and scones. 

Their lives seemed to be sailing along fairly smoothly until one day Anita came to the coffee house distraught and angry about an incident with her 17-year-old son, Marcus.

“You won’t believe what he pulled this past weekend!” Anita exclaimed as she joined her sister at their usual table.

“What? Who? What’s going on Ann?” Jessica inquired. 

“Marcus! He…well… he smoked pot at a party!”

Jessica was shocked. Marcus was a good kid.  He was a popular senior doing well in school and headed to a good university next year. Jessica knew all this because her oldest child, Janelle, ran in the same crowd as Marcus. But, as much as she was concerned about her nephew smoking pot, what Anita would share next was far more disturbing.

“Okay, well, now, tell me what happened?”  Jess tried to calm her sister as she dug a little deeper.

Anita answered, “I told you what happened. He smoked pot! That’s what happened!”

“But, how do you know?” Jess questioned.

“How do I know anything? Kids talk. That’s how. Someone at the party told Marc’s little brother Jeffrey and Jeff told us.”

“Did you ask Marcus about it? Maybe it’s a misunderstanding.”

“We told him what Jeff had told us. He tried to explain himself, but we cut that off right quick because there are no good reasons for using drugs!”

“Okay. So… what are you gonna do about it?”  Jess asked gently.

“Oh, we have already DONE about it!  We grounded his sorry ass for a month!” Anita loudly proclaimed drawing the attention of the other customers.

Somewhat embarrassed, Jess calmly continued, “But, did you ask him what happened? I mean, kids try drugs for different reasons.  Is he okay?  Janelle told me he took it really hard when his girlfriend broke up with him because they are headed to different colleges in the fall.  Why did he say he tried pot? Is he depressed, experimenting?  What’s going on in his head. He knows drugs aren’t okay. This is really out of character for him. Is he okay?”

“Does it matter? Does it matter what he was thinking or why he did it or what’s going on with him?" Anita answered.  "Not in our family it doesn’t! We have made it clear to all the kids that we have a zero-tolerance policy in our family when it comes to drugs and alcohol.  His reasons don’t matter. But, he will have plenty of time to think about whatever it is that is bothering him while he is stuck in his room for the next thirty days.”

“Thirty days!? That seems a pretty harsh punishment without even asking what happened Ann. You didn’t even give him a chance to defend himself against someone else’s version of the story. Keeping a kid in his room all evening and all weekends for a month just seems harsh.”

“Oh, he is getting more than weekends and evenings. He is grounded 24-hours-a-day.”

“Wait. You can’t keep him in his room 24-hours-a-day. He has to go to school!”

“Oh, no he doesn’t.  He is staying locked in his room 24/7 for 30 days. Period.”

“But, he will fail school if he can’t go and what about his Saturday job with the landscaping company? And soccer? He has a lot of people depending on him.” Jess pleaded with her sister. 

“He should have thought about all of that before he put that doobie in his mouth!” Anita would not back down.

“Ann! This doesn’t make any sense!”  Now Jess was getting heated. “He has a good scholarship waiting for him. A bright future. If he fails classes now, he will lose all of it! The landscape guys need him on Saturdays to work. They are really busy this time of year. His soccer team needs him. And, who is going to make sure he stays in his room all day anyway?  You and David work. The kids are all in school. You can’t monitor him 24/7 for 30 days!”

“Sure, I can. We hired a security guard.”  Jess about fell off her chair as Anita continued. “The guy comes at 7:30 AM and stays till 5:30 PM when David and I get home. This way we can be sure he stays put. The guard will even take food into him during the day. I make the lunch before I leave and the guard takes it in at lunch time. The guy will even watch him pee and take a shower—the only reasons he is allowed out of his room.  And, it’s only costing us $12 an hour. I found him on craigslist.”

Stunned, Jess stared at her sister in disbelief. Slowly, she formed her next thought and asked, “How in the world are you going to afford to pay a full-time security guard to keep Marcus in his room for 30 days?  You guys don’t have that kind of money.”

“No, we don’t.  But, we need to make sure he knows what he has done is serious. So, we made adjustments by stopping the others kids’ music lessons and sports and theater stuff for the month. The guard is willing to monitor the others after school too. I mean, since they have to give up their usual after-school activities. They just come home and stay there. The kids aren’t happy, but I told them we all need to make sacrifices to ensure Marcus straightens up and never does this again. We can’t have a drug user in our house. It makes everyone unsafe. This is as much for their good as it is for his.”

Jess shook her head slowly, “I am sorry Anita. This is really confusing. You are taking away from three kids who have done nothing wrong to teach a lesson to one kid—a lesson that will cost him his college scholarship, a good job and who knows what else?  Wouldn’t it make more sense to get him some counseling or at least get to the bottom of why he tried drugs and maybe deal with the root cause of this?”

Anita stared back at her sister and answered flatly, “Jess. That’s really not my problem. Marcus knew the rules. Marcus chose to break the rules and now Marcus will pay. Do the crime. Do the time.

Jess looked up from her cooling latte to meet her sister’s callous stare as she carefully replied. “Ann, it seems more accurate to say that Marcus broke the rules and now everyone is going to pay.”