Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Ballad of K.D. Hubbard

"We're in the butt-kicking business, and business is very, very good." - former NBA star Charles Barkley.

I learned some frightening things about human behavior during my time as City Prosecutor in Middletown, Ohio. Perhaps the most frightening thing I learned is that there isn't a damned thing that distinguishes criminals from other people, save access to an education or other forms of wealth. Crimes are committed by perfectly normal people, and not by aliens or animals. They are mostly committed by desperate people who believe they have no other option, but they are also committed by angry people who were themselves victims --- sometimes the victims of other criminals but also the victims of a system that seems to give them no chance.

From July, 2004 through May, 2006, five murderers were arraigned in my courtroom. Five handcuffed murderers walked through the tiny door leading from the jail cell into the courtroom wearing their orange jail jumpsuits, and took their places a few feet away from me.

I looked all five of them straight in the eye. I couldn't help myself. None of the five returned my gaze, but I somehow wanted to understand if I had anything in common with these people. The frightening truth was, I had everything in common with them except that I was wearing a pleated suit and was not handcuffed.

Municipal Courts in Ohio are almost a cattle-call. Business is brisk. In our court we processed up to 80 new cases a day, three days a week. Now obviously the jails in Ohio aren't large enough to accept 250 new residents from every city, every week and so our judge ---- a wonderful man named Mark Wall ---- had to walk the fine line of filling them up just enough with the worst offenders to appease the voting public, while lecturing and encouraging the others.

Jail crowding has not influenced the behavior of Ohio's politicians in the General Assembly. You can catch them at their daily grind five days a week on public television, and each session is dominated by the huff and puff and hot air of politicos doing their best to appear "tough on crime." I'm really too sick of the proceedings to watch anymore. The last session I saw featured a 45-minute diatribe from one lawmaker who wanted to upgrade cock fighting to a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to 180 days in jail. Of course, nobody debated him or offered an opposing view. I imagine the measure passed although I didn't stick around to watch the vote. Nobody stands up for the sub-class of human society called "criminals."

Somewhere along the way in the history of Ohio's General Assembly, a lawmaker introduced a bill to upgrade the heinous crime of driving without car insurance to a first-degree misdemeanor. As a prosecutor in Ohio, this is probably the most commonly-charged offense that will bring people into your courtroom. In Middletown we had to allot a special afternoon twice a month just to deal with these cases.

Now we couldn't put these people in jail. There wasn't room. If we put one of these people in jail, we had to release someone else who was almost certainly more dangerous. So .... you bring them in twice a month to ask if they've made any progress on car insurance.

Unfortunately, this is not a simple matter. When I left the job in 2006, the fee from the Bureau of Motor Vehicles to reinstate a driver's license was $625. I'm sure the fee is higher now, and the fee is assessed in addition to other costs associated with licensing and registering and insuring and blah, blah, blah......

I'm not even sure why we need a Bureau of Motor Vehicles. A lot of people earn a living in the belly of that government whale. But what do they contribute to society? A hundred years ago people rode around on horses and nobody needed a license. I've tried riding a horse and it's a damned sight more difficult than driving a car. But whatever, I don't make the rules....

The simple fact is, poor people can't find jobs in Ohio and they can't afford to drive. Even worse, there are only six buses in Middletown and they are not all in service at any one time. So, in Middletown a total of maybe 150 people ---- in a city of over 50,000 ---- can actually get anywhere without driving.

We had one amiable fellow who showed up in the courtroom every few weeks, charged with driving without car insurance. I remember him distinctly, for reasons that will become clear later. I saw him at least a dozen times myself in two years, and probably he was charged as frequently all the other adult years of his life before I arrived, so the Judge knew him a lot better than I did. His name was K.D. Hubbard and he was certainly not unusual. We had many, many "criminals" charged a dozen times or more with this crime in the short period I worked there.

The Monday morning routine for K.D. Hubbard was invariably the same. The Judge would greet him with, "K.D., what are we going to do with you?" And K.D., genuinely contrite and embarrassed, would say with a smile "I don't know, Judge. I'm awfully sorry. You should probably lock me up. I can't find a job." And the morning would end with Judge Wall encouraging K.D. to do his best and not come back anymore.

After one such morning at the end of arraignments, I was walking out to my car in the parking lot for lunch and passed K.D., who was standing on the curb, freshly released from jail, apparently waiting for a ride. He saw me and said as I passed, "Hey, Mister Prosecutor, can I give you a ride?"

I laughed. I couldn't help it. He was making a joke. He knew and I knew and every cop in Middletown knew that K.D. was too poor to drive.

The next time I saw K.D. Hubbard in my courtroom, he was charged with murder. Someone paid him $40,000 to befriend a competing drug dealer and shoot him in the back of the head.

Now I like to tell myself that there is no circumstance, no feeling of desperation sufficiently powerful, that would ever cause me to put a gun to someone's head and pull the trigger ---- even if that person was a drug dealer; even if the government called him a "terrorist"; even with the bestest-most-irrefutably-inarguable "right excuse." This is what I tell myself.

But I'm not in K.D. Hubbard's shoes. $40,000 to K.D. might just as well have been $100 million. He would never see that much money in any other way in his life. So, for $40,000 K.D. shot someone in the back of the head and showed up in my courtroom as one of the five murderers I came to know.

He faced the death penalty, but the court decided that since the person who hired him didn't get the death penalty, K.D. shouldn't get it either. So he will spend the rest of his life in prison .... forgotten, reviled, and disposed.

K.D. Hubbard was certainly wrong for what he did and there is no excusing it. But K.D. Hubbard was also entrenched in the gruesome battle against poverty that is perfectly invisible to so many Americans. One person who was not in that battle was the Ohio lawmaker, whoever he was, whose Mommy and Daddy sent him to college and who suckled the government mammary his whole life, and was sufficiently clever to upgrade the penalty for driving without car insurance to advance his own career.

I tell this story to encourage you to think twice, the next time you're tempted to vote for a "tough on crime" politician. They don't actually care; they just know how to work the system.

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