The San Diego Union-Tribune's editorial board doesn't think Susan LeFevre, the woman who escaped from a Michigan prison more than 30 years ago and eventually found a new, law-abiding life as Marie Walsh, a Carmel Valley wife and mother of three, should be “rewarded with a reduced sentence.”
On paper and in a vacuum, that makes a lot of sense. Prison breaks, as a rule, should be frowned upon. If you do the crime, you ought to do the time. It wouldn't exactly be fair to every other American who's patiently serving out his or her sentence to let LeFevre/Walsh wriggle off the hook just because it's been so long since she absconded after serving just one year of a 10-year sentence stemming from a 1975 heroin-dealing conviction.
But life plays out neither on paper nor in a vacuum, and when you look at this woman's life, you plainly see that no good can come from sending her back to prison 2,400 miles away. It's nothing but bad.
First of all, human beings should be caged only when they've demonstrated that they represent a danger to other people or other people's stuff. We can't have violent thugs or thieves running around hurting their neighbors or stealing things that don't belong to them.
At the end of 2006, there were 1,377,815 people locked up in U.S. state prisons. The most recent breakdown by offense available was the end of 2004, when 73 percent of state inmates were in for violent or property crimes, and 27 percent were in for drug (19.5 percent) or public-order crimes. Between 2000 and 2006, we put an average of 22,000 more people behind state-prison bars each year. Assuming the offense-related percentages and the overall inmate growth rate haven't changed significantly, there are about 275,000 people in state prisons today serving time for drug crimes, and we're spending about $6.6 billion every year keeping them behind bars.
LeFevre/Walsh would be one of them. She'd become a tax burden rather than what she is now—a tax-revenue generator. She'd also be yanked from her family, which includes a husband who apparently doesn't want his wife taken away despite the fact that she'd been lying to him all these years, two adult daughters and a 15-year-old son.
What good would it do the teenage boy to have his mother removed from his life until he's 24 years old? Those are some important, formative years.
Meanwhile, LeFevre/Walsh has done all the personal-rehabilitation work that prison not only wouldn't have accomplished but likely would have precluded. It's a fact that prison, for the most part, makes people worse, not better. This woman separated herself from her past and turned her life around. Without any help from the U.S. correctional system—a misnomer if there ever was one—she left her drug-dealing ways behind and established the very kind of identity our culture holds up as an ideal. Don't we wish more families would remain intact? Here we are about to tear one apart.
The only possible good that can come from sending a 53-year-old mom back to prison is the sense of satisfaction that the Michigan authorities perhaps feel in finally nabbing an escapee. But even that isn't entirely clear.
Union-Tribune staff writer Kristina Davis talked to E. Brady Denton, who, in the 1970s, was the prosecutor-in-charge in Saginaw County, where LeFevre was arrested. In her story, Davis wrote: “If he were prosecutor today, Denton said, he wouldn't put LeFevre back in prison. Instead, he would allow her to withdraw her plea, have her replead to the same charges, then sentence her under the new Michigan guidelines, which would factor in a prior record, the severity of the crime and what she has done with her life.”
“I'd give her probation and let her go back and be with her family in California,” Denton told Davis.
But whoever wrote the U-T's editorial didn't mention that, choosing instead to zero in on remarks by Saginaw police that “the heroin epidemic that gripped the city at that time spurred a surging homicide rate, with up to 55 people a year being murdered. So much for the claim that drug use is a victimless crime.”
Never mind that Denton told Davis that LeFevre “wasn't targeted as a major player.”
That said, LeFevre was convicted of a crime, and she escaped from prison, which isn't allowed. So, why not sentence her to the nine years she didn't serve for the drug dealing, plus three more for the escape, but have her perform community service close to home instead of languishing behind bars? Why not, for the betterment of society, have her do something useful, like volunteer at a drug-treatment facility, where she can help people kick a habit she once facilitated?
No, that would make too much sense.
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