Teens, booze, crime, and courts
I was on a long drive home from visiting a young man serving a 30 year prison sentence when I heard the second half of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing; not the one on his ability to be a justice, but the one related to accusations of sexual assault made against him by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. My reactions to the hearing stem from both my work in criminal justice system and my experience as a recovering alcoholic.
Kavanaugh is not being investigated for a crime; rather, he is being investigated for confirmation to a lifetime-tenure job at the very highest level of our nation’s justice system. He is being considered to lead a system that was designed to isolate crimes or harm and to largely ignore other factors. Most states have reduced or eliminated opportunities to earn release, passed laws to move children into adult courts based on their charges (pre-conviction), and increased penalties for almost every offense on the books. Judges are restrained by criminal codes developed in state legislatures, and they in turn provide jurors with instructions so narrow that those jurors are forced to ignore all context and mitigating circumstances.
Led a great life before? Too bad. Rehabilitated and helped others in prison? So sad. Wish you could take those ten seconds back? Sorry, kiddo. Under 18? In high school? Had a few too many drinks? That is irrelevant; you are going away for a long, long time. No mercy, no consideration of change, no forgiveness, no reconciliation. No humanity.
The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) has been the only institution in our criminal justice system willing to fundamentally challenge extreme sentencing policies for youth in adult courts. In a series of decisions over the past 15 years, the high court has repeatedly admonished states to stop treating kids like adults, and to start recognizing what brain experts have been saying for decades: kids are different; up to about 25, people age out of the hallmark bad behaviors of immaturity, including violence. Ironically, it was Justice Kennedy who was the swing vote in most of these decisions, with conservative members opposing the idea that kids require different treatment in court, even for serious crimes.
While Kavanaugh, now aspiring to Kennedy’s seat, denies any wrongdoing, his aggressive behavior in the hearing and his deflections when asked simple questions strike this recovering alcoholic as a brittle veneer hiding his own uncertainty. He could be innocent, he could be guilty. But I don’t think he knows, and I don’t think he has done the work to look inside himself and find out. His rage looks more suited to an adolescent than to an adult.
In recovery meetings we often joke that our emotional maturation process stalls at the age we started drinking heavily, only to resume when we stop drinking and get help. As young drinkers, we tell ourselves if we don’t remember it, and we didn’t get called on it at the time, it didn’t happen. There are two types of people who can’t get away with that type of thinking in adulthood: people who get convicted for their behavior while drinking, and people who recover from alcoholism. Most of us spend years, sometimes decades, sorting through our pasts to see where we may have transgressed and determining appropriate amends.
If Kavanaugh’s behavior in the hearing is indicative of his emotional maturity, he may still be living in the dream of someone who has never been called to account for his behavior while drinking. Given his background, and the lengths that elite schools, well-educated parents, and affluent communities go to protect their children from the implacable, indifferent, impersonal justice system, it is not surprising.
This is where the hypocrisy and horror sink in for me. When I observe SCOTUS-mandated re-sentencing hearings of youth given life sentences in adult court, in many cases 20 to 30 years past the date of the crime, I see a system that simply can’t wrap itself around the idea that kids are different. In the resentencing of Eric Anderson, I was horrified when Judge Arthur Hill acknowledged Anderson’s 20 year record, including his clear and undeniable growth from when he was incarcerated at the age of 15, his contributions to the prison community and his family, his poignant remorse, and then clearly stated that he would put all of those factors aside. He was clear that Anderson’s crime — committed at age 15 — outweighed more than 20 years of demonstrated rehabilitation. Anderson’s original conviction was based on hearsay of teenagers, a practice which is perfectly legal in Illinois when putting together a gang-related case.
I believe everyone is capable of change, even in the worst of circumstances. I see it every day in my recovery meetings, and I see it every day in men who have absolutely no incentive to reform, but do so anyway, within our flawed and under-resourced prisons.
Are people who assault women capable of change, too? I’m a woman, a mother, a survivor of several drunken adolescent missteps, as well as an abusive adult relationship while drinking. Surely I draw the line at rape?
If I want to believe everyone is capable of change, I must include those who have harmed women (with the caveat that there are some people who may be serial offenders, a minority, who need a higher degree of help and must be separated from society). But I believe change, in any case, will happen under the same set of conditions as those who recover from alcoholism or other crimes: conditions of recognition, acceptance, accountability, and recovery.
Without a doubt, there are many more people who have committed rape or sexual assault outside of prisons than there are in them. The men I meet with in prison who have committed rape have internalized the horror of their crime over decades, and they have had to learn to deal with themselves given that shame and remorse. Those who have committed these acts but experienced no consequences are in our communities today, and they do not remember their behavior, or they do not acknowledge their behavior as harmful. “If I don’t remember it, and no one called me on it at the time, it did not happen.”
Being a lifetime member of SCOTUS is not the right of someone who has great legal accomplishments. Innocent or guilty, Kavanaugh has shown that he does not have the emotional maturity or self-awareness to be given a lifetime appointment to anything. He especially should not sit in Justice Kennedy’s seat, where he could potentially decide the fate of youth who do not have his background or support network, based on their worst act, while ignoring the context of the times or their growth following adolescence. Time and time again, Justice Kennedy swam upstream from his conservative colleagues and fought to keep kids safe from adult punishments. If given the chance, do you think Kavanaugh would do the same?