Friday, January 21, 2011

Glaring inequality

I've generally stayed away from blogging about John Forbes because I've known him and his family for years. John was a student in my senior honors English class at Savio back in 1997-98, and even before that, when I worked at the Boys & Girls Club, John had been a Club member and coached little kids in our wiffle ball league. I followed the news like everyone else and waited to see the sentence that was handed down in federal court earlier this week, and now I'm happy for John and his family.

I glanced today at the Eastie Watch piece in this week's East Boston Times about Forbes and that spurred me to pull together some thoughts I had on the matter. I agree with the author's (though, for some reason, this weekly feature is unsigned I believe it's written by Times reporter John Lynds) contention that the Boston Herald's story on letters of support for Forbes -- specifically from City Councilor Sal LaMattina and former State Sen. Robert Travaglini -- is a bit snarky and off-base. These guys have both known the Forbes family forever, and if they had sacrificed that friendship in order to protect their political reputations, then that would have been a less-than-noble act. We're not talking about a backroom conversation with the DA or the judge to influence an outcome; this is the normal process of writing letters of support. People, including politicians, do this all the time.

What the Times doesn't confront -- and what I've only seen passing reference to in any local media in light of Forbes' sentence of probation -- is the broader picture, which this case has made even more clear: In America, the justice system is skewed by socioeconomic class. This isn't a novel or groundbreaking conclusion, but I can't help but think about it in these circumstances. Let's put aside the specifics of Forbes case because, as I said, I am pulling for him, and I want him to get on with his life. Speaking in objective terms of no one in particular, in the US, if one is white, middle class and is connected to the infrastructure of a community, one has a huge advantage in the criminal justice system. Conversely, if none of those are true, one has none of those advantages and is treating much differently in the courts.

Currently in the US there are more than 250,000 people in federal prisons and local jails for drug offenses. It's likely that many of them didn't have structured childhoods, good schools and connections to community organizations, and as a result they were locked up, often for years. Human Rights Watch has concluded that "blacks are 10.1 times more likely than whites to be sent to prison for drug offenses." I'm not, however, fixated on race, but class is a different story. OJ Simpson is black, but he got away with murder because of his money.

America has spent more than a trillion dollars on the so-called War on Drugs in the past 30 years. We don't seem to have received a good return on that investment. It's time to revamp drug laws so that everyone is able to receive treatment and everybody is able to get on living their lives with strong support structures in place. It's good economic policy, but it's also the right -- and fair -- thing to do.


Fousty said...


What upsets me about this issue is that LaMattina, as an sitting elected official represents all of Boston's District 1. Doesn't he also represent the families of the people that Forbes sold drugs to? And what about the organizations that are helping drug addicts in East Boston.

I understand that LaMattina and Forbes were long time family friends, but there are many ways he can help Forbes without having written the letter to the judge requesting leniency.


Jim said...

In the interest of full disclosure, you should know that I work part-time for Councilor LaMattina's office.

Having said that, I don't have a problem with elected officials writing letters of support for constituents in various circumstances, as long as there is no quid pro quo going on. I fail to see how writing the letter benefits LaMattina. In fact, he understood that it might become an issue, but he felt it was the right thing to do.

As I said, if his job had prevented the councilor from offering support for a long-time friend then I would have felt that it was a political decision -- and an easier choice to make.

Also, as I wrote in the original blog post, letters are part of the process. If there was some other extra-legal attempt at influencing the judge's sentence, then that is obviously inappropriate.

Almost everyone I know has a friend or family member who has dealt with/is dealing with addiction. I've seen the consequences of those struggles, some that last a lifetime. When anyone takes steps to get control of their life (even if forced by legal action) I think it is worth the support of others. Everybody deserves a second chance.

I'm really more concerned about the judge's decision and what it says about America's legal system.

N.starluna said...

I think Fousty's point is worth thinking about here. To me, there is an over-focus on constituent services and that is part of the problem of institutional bias.

We have to remember that elected officials are human beings and so it is understandable when they use their positions to help people they know. At the same time, we also expect that elected officials will prioritize their duty to the community over their duty to personal loyalties.

The social circle of most public officials is so circumscribed that, whether they intend to, they effectively only end up assisting only certain groups of people or end up burdening other groups of people. The fact that many elected officials do not have any (or at least any meaningful) relationships outside of a relatively small social network means that some groups of people end up being advantaged and others not (or even disadvantaged).

This is why I think that elected officials need to be much more critical and thoughtful about how they support whom. I totally understand LaMattina's effort to help out someone who is a friend and that there was no quid pro quo necessarily involved in that decision. But in doing so, he also reinforced the institutional bias that facilitates exactly the problems you described.

I personally would prefer that our city councilors do more work on improving the larger systems of institutional inequity and spend less time on the "constituent services" which reinforce those inequities.