Americans believe firmly in many things — God, country, democracy, the ShamWow, that Coors is drinkable, etc. But few propositions are as universally and uncritically embraced as the notion that college is awesome and everyone should go and when they do it will be transformitive. That's why so many families go broke or into debt thinking that when junior finishes his comp lit major he'll naturally be a successful and productive member of society.
This leads to all sorts of magic thinking. Case in point: the notion that if a young person is going to college, or about to go to college, it would be more unfair and unfeeling to derail their life just because they committed a crime
That sort thinking lets prosecutors and judges justify cutting Jonathan Brandon Norris a ridiculously light plea deal for shooting another kid three times at a party on the grounds that Norris will be graduating from Moorehouse College. Via Jonathan Turley:
Norris was reportedly causing trouble at a Halloween party in 2007 at an Atlanta club when the club threw him out. On his way out with his girlfriend, Norris reportedly bumped into Johnson and became enraged. He appeared outside of the club in his Hummer and pulled a gun on Norris. (In addition to the Hummer, Norris co-owns a fashion store). He claims that he was acting in self-defense, but shot the unarmed Norris three times. He was charged with one count of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and a second count for possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony. However, prosecutor Reid Thompson cut him a deal for a plea of no contest to a charge of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon as a first offender — allowing him to wipe his record clean – a $1000 fine, 240 hours of community service, and just six years probation. Thompson is quoted as saying to Arlington “We’ve got this young man who’s coming back to Morehouse now, he’s close to graduation. Sending him to state prison for two years, I don’t think that would be in the state’s best interest. Hopefully, this will be the lesson he needs.”
Fulton County Judge Marvin Arrington told Norris that he was giving him “the break of your life.” Johnson was not even notified of the hearing, let alone the deal, which mandated Norris’ return to school. At the hearing, Arrington observed that Norris “needs to have a curfew. He needs to be in a dorm where you can get some study time. Take organic chemistry and physics. Make him some A’s. . . . All of them got cars. Don’t need no dern car. They need a MARTA card.”
People like this prosecutor and this judge believe that getting a piece of furled sheepskin will transform Norris from the type of person who shoots unarmed kids three times over a spat at a party into the sort of person who will not. Less clear is whether it will transform Johnson into the sort of person less likely to get shot three times at a party. I guess we'll see. If graduation fails to miraculously transform Norris from a gun-toting hothead, I'm sure his next victim will feel honored to have been shot by a college graduate. Maybe he can get a better deal next time by applying for law school.
College is also viewed as a sort of redemptive institution, where all past sins are wiped clean, and where a person who in the past has acted in a sub-human manner can be expected to act decently. Hence, as Mike at Crime and Federalism points out, the University of Tennessee has decided to give a football scholarship to Daniel Hood, who while a juvenile a few years ago tied up and gagged his 14-year-old cousin so that Hood's friend could rape her. I understand that football coaches are really looking for a capacity for aggression, so I guess I understand how he came to be recruited. As Mike points out, Daniel Hood has "moved past it" — and what better place to move past it than on a magically transformative college campus, full of coeds? It's a shame he's too old to get a date with Gina Grant.
Now, I take advantage of this phenomenon on behalf of my clients, like any good defense attorney would. But I don't delude myself that it's true — that going to college really will make them better people and less likely to commit crimes in the future. It will just lodge them more firmly into the category of people whose crimes tend to be downplayed or excused.
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