Sunday, August 25, 2013

Burglar Gets 15 Years in Federal Prison for Possessing Shotgun Shells

We've all heard of criminals getting off on a technicality, but what about getting a long prison term for a technicality? That’s what happened to Edward Young, 43 years old, a convicted burglar who tried to reform himself. When Young was released from state prison in 1996 (where he served time for burglary charges), Young told his grandmother that he would turn his life around. He married, went to work, and with his wife raised 4 children in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

As reported in the New York Times (and more critically in, Young’s life took a sharply downward turn beginning in 2011. Young’s troubles came from a combination of virtuous and immoral behavior. On the virtuous side, Young helped a neighbor widow dispose of her husband’s belongings. Young kept the widow’s chest of drawers at his place. In this chest of drawers were seven shotgun shells. Young put them away so his children couldn't find them. He claims not to have known that it is illegal for convicted felons to possess ammunition.

About the same time as his helping the neighbor widow, Young regressed to his previous criminal behavior. He allegedly stole tools, tires, and weightlifting equipment from vehicles and a business warehouse. He brought his son with him one time during a crime spree. This behavior brought the police to his house to conduct a search, during which they found the shotgun shells.

Young confessed to the burglaries and faced a few years in state prison, with the possibility of parole and probation, which seems a reasonable punishment for the crime. The possession of the shotgun shells, however, allowed the U.S. Attorney to prosecute Young under the “Armed Career Criminal Act”. His 20-year-old burglary convictions counted against him, something that is unique to this law. Young never used a firearm in any of the crimes he was convicted of, and although possessing shotgun shells, he had no gun. Nevertheless, Young got 15 years for possessing the shotgun shells, which is the minimum sentence under the federal law. This sentence allows for no possibility of parole, and no discretion in sentencing. The judge, sympathizing with Young, compared the situation to a Charles Dickens novel.

The federal government will spend $415,000 over 15 years to incarcerate Young. His children, ages 6 to 16, will grow up without a father. Is this in society’s best interest? High incarceration rates have reduced the crime rate, but this comes at a high cost. In 1978, the United States had 307,000 inmates in state and federal prisons. In 2012, the number had quintupled to 1.57 million. 1 in 100 adults are now in prison or jail nationwide. The average cost to incarcerate someone in state and federal prison is about $30,000 per year. Multiplied by 1.57 million, this amounts to $47 billion per year.

Beside money, another societal cost is children growing up without fathers. Due to disability, Young was a stay-at-home father for his four young children. Now his children will have to be raised by their mother alone. Single parenting is a societal concern that causes an elevated risk of children’s experiencing cognitive, emotional, and social problems. The number of children living in single parent households has nearly doubled in the last 50 years. One in three children are now raised without a father. Not all children raised by a single parent have problems, but children are more likely to have problems compared to children raised by two parents. Boys in particular are more likely to have conduct and academic problems if their father is absent.

There are many reasons why more children today are raised by single parents. One common reason is that the father abandons the child. This can happen to married or unmarried parents. The mother may not want to marry the father for some reason, or if they are married, she may want to divorce. Many fathers are unemployed or employed in menial jobs, not making them attractive candidates for marriage. Some fathers are alcoholics or drug addicts, and may be violent and abusive.

In the case of Edward Young, these reasons aren't relevant. He got married, had 4 children with his wife, was involved in the children’s upbringing, and both he and his wife wanted to stay married and raise the children together. In this case, the government removed Young from his family and will incarcerate him for 15 years, for having shotgun shells with no shotgun. Young was not a perfect father. He had a history of burglaries when he was younger, and was a convicted felon. More importantly, he recently resumed criminal behavior, and involved his son. At age 43, and a father of 4, it’s unlikely but possible that Young would become a habitual criminal. Most criminals are young people. Young men are more impulsive and prone to criminal behavior than middle aged or older men. I think that a conviction and sentence of one or two years in prison would be enough of a deterrent to make him avoid any further misdeeds.

We need to rethink mandatory sentencing and mass incarceration. Mandatory sentencing usually kicks in when someone has a long history of criminal behavior. The problem is that longer sentencing for older men makes no sense, since older men are less likely to commit crimes. Mandatory sentencing and mass incarceration are expensive in terms of monetary and societal costs. They are a major cause of family breakdown, especially in low-income neighborhoods. Mass incarceration is one reason why so many American children are raised by single parents. The incarceration rate is 1% in the U.S., and much higher in low-income neighborhoods. Many states have moved away from mass incarceration, including New York and Texas. It’s time for the federal government to rethink laws like the Armed Career Criminal Act and restore common sense and the public interest to sentencing.

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