Our prophets demand equal justice for the most vulnerable
Gary Roberts grew up in a family for whom substance abuse was a normal part of life. Both his mother and grandfather were alcoholics. His grandfather gave him his first drink at age 5. His family moved around a lot, and he never stayed in one school for more than two years. So he never fit in socially, and by the time he was in highschool he started drinking every morning before getting on the school bus. When he was intoxicated, his social anxiety went away.
He had an older brother, Bill, whom he idolized. Bill introduced him to meth. At first it was occasional use, but pretty quickly – by the time Gary was 19 years old – he was using it every day. In his words, “it consumed my life.”
Gary was addicted to meth for 34 years. Somehow, he managed to become a mechanic, to get married, and to raise his son. But their life was turbulent, often living hand-to-mouth, always with the drugs numbing him to reality, and always desperate to feed his addiction.
Then one day, three years ago, Gary was busted for transporting meth across state lines. That arrest changed his life. While awaiting trial and sentencing, Gary was required to enroll in a detox program. Here’s what two of the counselors in the program said about him:
He came in not necessarily blaming, but not taking responsibility. He focused on the program as a way to try to fix something that was someone else’s problem, or that happened to him. He switched from that to someone who said, ‘it’s all my fault. I need to change something about myself. And he then went on to be able to say, ‘you know what, I was there. I have to take responsibility for it.’
Gary Roberts did teshuva. After 34 years under the influence of a drug, he returned to his true self. He got himself a solid job, his employer said about him: “Gary has worked for me for close to two years, and I would be almost out of business if I didn’t have him.” Tragically, during Gary’s recovery period his daughter-in-law died in a car accident, leaving Gary’s son a single father of 3 children. And Gary was there for them. His son Josh said about him: “I took [my wife’s death] very hard. It wasn’t something I could really, honestly cope with… When my oldest daughter was having emotional issues and wanting to know what happened to [her mother], my father was there for her emotionally, when I couldn’t be there emotionally myself.” And not just emotionally. Gary has been helping his son and grandchildren in material ways, too.
It has been three years since his arrest, and Gary has been totally clean. But there was still the matter of the case against him. Criminal trials can take years, and the entire time the defendant has a sword dangling over their head. The probation department recommended Gary serve 51 months – that’s over 4 years – in prison. What would four years in the violent, oppressive environment of a federal prison do to Gary’s renewed promise to his son, his grandchildren, himself? Especially now, with Covid spreading unchecked among prisoners.
If you are planning to attend Kimberly Papillon’s implicit bias talk this week, spoiler alert. One of the studies she sometimes shares looks at marijuana use during the first decade of the 21st century – when it was still illegal across the states. Over that time, African-Americans and Caucasian-Americans were about equally likely to use marijuana, but Blacks were four times as likely as Whites to be arrested for it. Those numbers should disturb all of us, even though it is actually very hard to tease out how much of that lopsided justice is due to implicit bias, and to some other factor, like wealth discrepancy.
Gary Roberts is not Black. He is Caucasian, and he is very poor. Which means that he was dependent on a public defender to represent him. Our public defenders are notoriously underfunded. Depending on what county you live in, if you are counting on a public defender, your lawyer may have such a big case load he may spend less than an hour to prepare your entire court case. It’s really impossible to properly defend someone that way.
Gary got lucky. He was assigned to Etan Zaitsu who, though overworked, really tries to do right by his clients. And, Etan had previously worked on a case with Rebecca Grace and John Gray – a husband and wife team of documentary film makers, who created a non-profit called The Complete Picture Project, making short documentaries to offer judges a more rounded picture of the individual sitting in front them awaiting sentencing. Rebecca and John also happen to be members of our CBJ community, which is how I know them and got to hear this story. You should check out their website – The Complete Picture Project. The stories they share will touch you.
Gary’s lawyer, Etan, wanted to try to have Complete Picture make a video for him. Unfortunately, Complete Picture does not yet have philanthropic funding to be able to offer the videos free of charge – but, the judge can approve government funds to make the video. Gary didn’t want Etan to put in the request. Rebecca explained to me, “It was like he felt he was undeserving, or like he didn’t want to take handouts.” What Gary may not have realized is that the cost of a video is $6000. The cost of incarcerating a person in California for just one month is more than $6000, and Gary was looking at 51 months.
There was another reason for Etan to hesitate. The judge assigned to the case was known to be tough on crime. In 13 years on the bench, he has always stayed close to the probation departments recommendations. And he categorically refuses funding for things like sentencing videos.
Etan decided to try anyway. And to his surprise and delight, this time the judge approved the funding! But now we were in the midst of the pandemic, and Rebecca and John had not done a shooting since the shelter-in-place began. They grappled with the decision, but in the end they were so moved by Gary’s story they decided to do the film with masks on.
They put many, many hours of meticulous work into this film – as they do for every one of their sentencing videos. Finally, it was ready, and they had done a beautiful job. They sent the video to Etan, who passed it on to the judge.
And the judge refused to watch it. Apparently, the funding had been a mistake. He had not intended to approve it.
If you have the Etz Chayim book of Torah, open it to page 1002. Today we read the third haftorah of admonition – the tlata d’puranuta that I spoke about two weeks ago. It is the final, and most intense, of three prophecies of rebuke leading up to Tisha B’av. Tisha B’av is the most sorrowful day on the Jewish calendar. In it, we mourn all oppression, all the many forms of misery that human beings have caused each other throughout history.
In this week’s haftorah, Isaiah shouts at the hypocrisy of the Israelites. They spend their resources on fancy rituals – elaborate sacrifices for Shabbat, holidays, rosh chodesh (celebrations of each new moon) – while they fail to do justice for the most vulnerable among them.
Your new moons and seasonal holidays fill Me with loathing; They are become a burden to Me, I cannot endure them.
And when you lift up your hands, I will turn My eyes away from you; Though you pray at length, I will not listen. Your hands are stained with crime—
Wash yourselves clean; Put your evil doings Away from My sight. Cease to do evil;
Learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; Aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; Defend the cause of the widow. (Isaiah chapter 1, verses 14-17)
But there is hope, if we put in the effort:
“Come, let us reach an understanding, —says the LORD. Be your sins like crimson, They can turn snow-white; Be they red as dyed wool, They can become like fleece.”
If, then, you agree and give heed, You will eat the good things of the earth; (verses 18-19)
What would the prophet Isaiah say, if he saw the justice system of our beloved United States of America? Our ideals are so high, they are the embodiment of mishpat – of the justice that Isaiah demanded. Innocent until proven guilty. Every defendant has a right to due process, and a right legal to representation. The same laws apply to all, and no individual is above the law. I think if the prophets could know the legal foundations of our democracy, they would exalt in how far we’ve come!
But our reality falls short of our ideals. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the entire world. What percentage of the world total population lives in the US? 328 million out of 7.5 billion. About 4%. So why is it that 20% percent of the world’s prisoners live in the US? How is it that we regularly send children 15 or 16 years old, and sometimes all the way down to 8 years old, to adult prison? When I think of all the teens and children in my life, how impulsive many of them are, how vulnerable they are, how easily they can be influenced or manipulated- and how everyone of them is still developing and changing – this practice of sending teenagers to adult prison blows my mind. Is this not the injustice towards the orphan that Isaiah condemned? And in all legal trials, criminal or civil, adult or juvenile, the enormous disparity between actual outcomes for the wealthy and the poor is exactly the stuff that our prophets railed against.
But — we also have our shining success stories. That detox program that gave Gary a new life – that was our criminal justice system that forced him to enroll. Other Complete Picture clients have similar stories to tell – their lives saved by an arrest that forced them into rehab.
And in Gary’s case, the story has a happy ending. That video was sitting in the judge’s inbox, and he finally figured, what the heck, they made it, I’ll just watch it. Remember, this was the judge that almost always does what the probation committee recommends, and they were recommending 4 years behind bars. After the judge saw the video sharing Gary’s story, with statements from three of his counselors, his employer and most of all his son, with footage of Gary with his buddies in the rehab home, and in his son’s home playing with his grandchildren, and Gary himself expressing genuine remorse for who he’d been and what he’d done – the judge recommended zero time in prison. Not even an ankle bracelet. Gary had done his penance, not through the physical privation of prison, but through the genuine emotional work of rehab. And now he is free – free of his addiction, and free to be present as the father and grandfather that his children need.
It would have turned out very differently for Gary, if the judge had not been distracted that day he accidentally approved the funding for the video. But perhaps now, the judge’s heart has opened. Maybe he will be able to see future defendants sitting before him as people created in God’s image, capable of teshuvah, and be able to ask whether genuine teshuva has happened, before passing a sentence.
And may our hearts be open, too. May we not judge each other solely by our mistakes, but strive to see the complete picture of each person we encounter. And may we seek justice for the most vulnerable among us.
For then, says the prophet Isaiah in the final verse of our Haftarah:
Zion shall be saved in through justice; Her repentant ones, through righteousness (chapter 1, verse 27)