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  • Chris Cotton

It Takes a Genius...

Updated: Dec 20, 2022

I won't post the link to the local online "news" story because it's about someone our organization will be serving in his preparation for reentry. We had not connected with him previously but are seeking him out now. If you're a local you can check the tabloid site which posts its "most wanted" and jail booking trash as its contribution to our community. But the "genius" comment in some iteration appears throughout the comments on the social media site hosting this story. I typed, then deleted, countless comments and replies of my own. At best they were going to be lost on those making these comments and at worst they were lowering to the level of those making them. My good friend and Wabash Sigma Chi Pledge Brother, Erik Dafforn, likes to remind me, "If you win a battle on the low road you're still down in the ditch". And he's right.


Here's the gist of what happened. An inmate is released from a period of incarceration, takes a county owned vehicle which was unlocked and had the keys in the ignition, and was re-arrested within 30 minutes. Let's look at the three parts of this vignette.


First, let me describe what the average person faces upon release and re-entry from any period of incarceration. It's rare that someone has a loving family, safe place to live, and a job with a living wage awaiting their release. Let me rephrase - it's damn rare. The overwhelming majority of inmates in county jails are not violent by any stretch of the imagination. In our jail, more than 90% are there because of mental illness and a co-occurring substance use disorder. They've been charged with possession or even dealing (with little drugs in possession to justify this charge, but that's another blog post), theft, residential entry or burglary, shoplifting, or probation violations. This last item is also another post entirely, but the short version is a probation violation is just about anything the officer decides is a violation. For example, not having a drivers license and calling the morning of your appointment to say you don't have a ride and need to reschedule can cause a violation. No, I am not kidding or exaggerating.


Back to the first point... You're released. Seems like it should be a happy occasion right? What if you have nobody to pick you up, no home to go to, nothing but the clothes on your back, and no cell to even try to call somewhere or someone for services? Walk to the homeless shelter you say? Ha. Again, for another post. Our local homeless shelter only does intake from 9:00 AM to noon Monday through Friday. If you get released at 1:00 PM, good luck for the next 20 hours and then again, good luck. Rarely does our shelter have open beds as it gives priority to people wanting transferred to rehab programs. So, it's December, 38 degrees, overcast, breezy, and damp. What do you do?


Second, there is an unlocked county vehicle. At our justice building it's easy to tell which vehicles belong to the county as each space is marked. You sit in the vehicle out of the weather for half an hour contemplating your next step. The keys are right there in the ignition. You've got no safe place to go. The mere fact you entered this unlocked vehicle is already a probation violation if you're caught. So, you're going back regardless. Not a good decision to start to be sure. But, if you exit the vehicle now it could be days before law enforcement finds you and executes the warrant for the violation. If you decide to drive the vehicle, this will accelerate the process and you'll be back inside within the hour. What do you do?


This gentleman made two choices which had him back in KCJ within the hour after his release. With nowhere else to go, he entered a vehicle knowing it would violate his probation. It's notable he only checked the county owned vehicles. Then he started and drove the vehicle. He was back in jail before dinner the day he was released. But at least he wasn't on the streets or at a trap house or in danger. That's the kind of choices we're giving our fellow citizens who are facing re-entry. Which is to say, no choice.


As an aside, I will be interested to know if the county employee who left the vehicle unlocked with the keys in the ignition will be reprimanded publicly like this guy was. My guess is they will not.

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