I recently watched Eugene Jarecki’s remarkable documentary, The House I Live In, which is about the American ‘war on drugs’ and the burgeoning prison population it engendered and continues to engender.
Rarely do I find myself murmuring and tsk-tsking during a movie, but this one was highly affecting — an intimate look at how history, racism, economics, and politics have created a system that no one is proud of and no one really likes. Even the cops and prison guards who claim to love their jobs express unease with the human suffering and unbalanced scales of justice that lead to it.
One particular story has stayed with me.
A man named Kevin Ott was found in possession of a small envelope of meth; prior to that he’d been arrested twice, again for possessing small amounts of illegal drugs (meth and marijuana).
He’s been in prison for seventeen years. And he will be there until he dies: Ott is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Because he was a three-time offender, his state’s mandatory sentencing laws required that he be put away for life.
Let me emphasize again: in prison for life, for non-violent crimes. And he is merely one of thousands.
This is not to say that I condone the possession of illegal drugs. But putting people like Kevin Ott in prison for life exacts a tremendous cost, not just in the half-million or so dollars to keep him incarcerated, but, more seriously, in the cost to Kevin — who, of course, is deeply repentant — and to his grieving family.
The film, and this case, were particularly moving because another story that’s captured my mind this week is that of the 16 year old Ethan Couch — a child born after Kevin Ott began serving his life sentence — who, last summer, killed four people and seriously wounded several others (including one who is “minimally conscious” and permanently paralyzed) when he plowed his father’s truck into them, drunk on beer he’d stolen from Walmart. Marijuana and Valium were also found in his blood, in addition to alcohol three times over the legal limit.
Couch’s defense built a case that’s been getting a lot of buzz because of the testifying psychologist’s use of the term ‘affluenza’: young Ethan, they argued, simply never has had the opportunity to learn right from wrong, or to learn limits, because his family’s wealth has always protected him. Indeed, there are elements of the “poor little rich kid” in his story: he apparently often stayed home alone, was never punished after being ticketed by a police officer for being drunk in a car with a naked and unconscious 14 year old girl last year, and his father sounds like a real and possibly criminal creep.
Couch is not going to be serving any prison time, at least, not for the deaths of those four people. Instead, he’s going to be packed off to a plush “rehab” center in Southern California for two years — to the tune of a million of his Daddy’s dollars — where he’ll have organic food, horseback riding, massages, swimming, and so on. He’s on probation for ten years, which is no joke, of course, but …
You won’t see Kevin Ott getting any organic food or massages for the rest of his life. For possessing drugs. And harming no one.
I can’t pretend I understand that a bit. And I can’t pretend that I’m not sad that my faith in our justice system is shaky at best.
“You shall not render an unfair decision: do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your kinsman fairly.” (Leviticus 19:15)
I know that God is the only truly just judge. I know that these tales of injustice will always be with us. Which is why I’m grateful to the ones who tell the stories, and why I urge everyone to listen.
Rachel Marie Stone is the author of Eat with Joy: Redeeming God's Gift of Food (InterVarsity Press, March 2013) and a regular contributor to Christianity Today's her.meneutics blog. She has contributed to Christianity Today, The Christian Century, Books & Culture, Flourish, and The Huffington Post, among other publications. She blogs at RachelMarieStone.com and lives in Malawi, Africa, where she teaches English at Zomba Theological College.