Go against the tide to change justice system

Here I go again, putting my foot in my big mouth, as my dear friends would say.

I don't know, but it seems that more often than not I find myself doing what my unit manager at Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. here in Augusta warned me against way back in 1965. No, it wasn't "putting my foot in my mouth," but rather what he used to call, in his deep military voice and using a cruder term, "urinating against the tide."

Clifford Herzberg was a retired sergeant major and a character who will forever, at least as long as I live, be remembered by me. In the office they called him "Cliff," but I always called him "Mr. Herzberg." And that had nothing to do with him being a white man living in the '60s. There were a lot of white men during the '60s I called by their first names. But I had a special respect for Mr. Herzberg. He taught me so much about salesmanship at the office at 13th and Greene streets and later at the office at the Wachovia building on Broad Street. Back then it was called the Georgia Railroad Bank building, where I had an office -- with a white secretary, believe it or not -- on the eighth floor, overlooking the Savannah River and North Augusta. I was what some folks called "living in high cotton."

ONE OF THE first things Mr. Herzberg taught me was how not to waste time trying to sell insurance to somebody who neither was interested in it nor could afford to pay for it. That's what he called going against the tide. However, I must confess I wasn't a good student. In spite of Mr. Herzberg's admonition, I still tried to go against the tide, even up to this day.

And it seems that I have been doing that most of my life. It's nothing that I set out to do. It's just my nature to think the unthinkable, the improbable, and, sometimes, the impossible.

It occurred to me over the past several months that we taxpayers are getting, let's just say, the short end of the stick in the criminal justice system -- local, state and federal. And guess who's getting the long end? You guessed it. Right. The criminals.

Now, wait just a moment, don't get me wrong. I'm not weighing in on the side of those advocating harsher punishment, such as locking 'em up and throwing away the key -- at least not at this time. Furthermore, I don't think they would be taking that position either if they would just stop for a moment, take a deep breath and count the cost of locking up people vs. what they get in return. Locking up people and throwing away the key is the easiest and, I must say, the costliest thing to do. Like an out-of-sight, out-of-mind sort of thing.

WHAT I'M TALKING about takes some risk -- going against the tide. I'm talking about going against one of the most powerful systems in the nation -- the justice system. And who is little ol' Grady Abrams to question how it's run? Or, should I say, ruined?

Here I go again, putting my foot in my big mouth. Why can't I just shut up and leave things alone? The answer is simple: The cost is too much.

Just for the sake of argument, can we agree that most of our criminal laws were passed and are passed from an emotional state of mind? After a rape, a murder, a child molestation or any number of crimes that touch us in an emotional way, very seldom do we find ourselves writing criminal legislation when we are not in such a state. It's like preparing for the funeral of a loved one. We don't worry about cost. We make decisions about things in an emotional state, and then later on find out we can't pay for them.

DON'T GET ME wrong. We need laws to exact retribution for crimes committed. The question is, what kind of laws? For society to get the biggest bang for the buck, we have got to take a long, hard look at how our money is now being spent in this present system of ours, which seems to punish the taxpayers, like myself, more so than the criminals.

What's my rationale for thinking this way? Well, I'm told that it takes an average of $30,000 a year to incarcerate a prisoner. That's any prisoner -- from a despicable rapist or child molester to a person in for simple possession of drugs. They all get the same accommodations. This is not to speak of the cost of before and after incarceration -- i.e., court costs and probation costs.

For example, a person locked up for drug possession for five years could cost taxpayers anywhere from $150,000 to $200,000. One hundred prisoners at that cost could cost taxpayers $20 million -- enough to build a library, a school, a courthouse or any public building that could benefit law-abiding citizens.

But guess what we get in return? Usually a person who knows a whole lot more about crime than he did before he went in -- and, in many cases, can't wait to get out to try out his new-learned skills. Thus the cycle begins again and seems to never end. And we keep on paying, and keep on paying and believing that we are getting a good deal.

THAT'S THE real tragedy. We pay as victims of crimes and we turn around and pay for the criminal to be worse when turned loose. Don't think for one moment that you can put a person in an inhumane environment, without some kind of rehabilitation program, and expect for him to come out and be a model citizen. It just ain't gonna happen -- excuse the slang.

Somebody has got to stand up and say "no!"

Maybe we can get angry enough to come up with a system where the criminal actually pays for crime and not the other way around. Of course, that will require, first of all, legislators who are willing to stand and go against the tide, dare to make a paradigm shift and dare to react to crime in a rational way, rather than an emotional way.

Too bad we are forced to let loose people who perhaps should not have been there in the first place to make room for the violent criminals.

One thing's for sure: It's getting to where we can no longer afford to pay for our emotions. I think we can do better. In fact, I know we can. All it takes is to go against the tide.

The writer is a former Augusta city councilman, and a retired labor relations manager from Bechtel Savannah River Inc. He lives in Martinez.

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