Today I saw this story on yahoo.com. This is a pretty good example of the kind of stuff I deal with in my job. The article doesn’t mention his age so I’m not sure if he’s a juvenile or an adult (17 year olds are juveniles in PA). However, his family had to bail him out and there’s no bail in the juvenile system (except in Massachusetts). As the article states, it was pretty stupid of Issah to try to pay for his McDonald’s using fake money. But that’s really all it is: dumb. Sure, McDonald’s lost some profit but if he pays it back, no harm no foul. Of course, he needs to be held accountable for his actions, presumably through more than simple restitution. The question is, why on earth would prison be appropriate?? It doesn’t sound like he will end up in prison, thank goodness, but the tone of the article definitely implies that prison would be the default response and that he’ll only get out of it because of some diversion program. I get the idea of accountability. That’s a no brainer. But what I don’t get is the idea that Pennsylvania tax payers should have to pay $30,000/day for this stupid kid playing with fake money to be in prison with rapists and murderers. Does that make any sense? As for punishment, there must be other kinds of punishments that can get the message across that it’s not okay to avoid paying for what you buy. My guess is that if he loses his football scholarship, that would be a pretty significant punishment. I think that’s excessive but it’s more reasonable than prison.
The article doesn’t state whether this kid has a prior record, but the idea that he may have screwed up his scholarship by getting arrested now implies that he had a clean slate before. The criminal justice system is supposed to ensure that our community is safe and that people who break the law won’t do it again. But, there’s no way to really ensure that people won’t break laws so you have to make decisions about how to utilize the resources of the justice system effectively to do the best you can to achieve public safety – kind of like a triage process. If you waste resources on people that aren’t a threat to public safety, there are fewer resources available for the serious criminals. That’s why we tell jurisdictions we work with that it’s not advisable to put first time minor offenders on probation (let alone in jail). If a probation officer has a caseload of 50 and some of those kids pose a real risk to public safety, do we really want them spending their time on those kids that just made a stupid mistake and probably won’t do it again? I can tell you from talking to POs that unnecessarily high caseloads hurt their ability to pay attention to the kids that really need their attention. It’s a waste of their time, a waste of county or state funds, and an unnecessary intrusion into the lives of troublemaking kids who may have made stupid decisions but probably won’t become lifelong criminals.