District Judge Donald Spilseth recently sentenced former Latin Kings gang member Angel Hernandez to college, rather than the traditional punishment of prison. Instead of sitting in jail, Hernandez must now remain studious and employed. The prosecuting attorney, Connie Crowell, has raised objections to the judge’s ruling and plans to appeal the case. Unfortunately, she fails to realize the promise of Spilseth’s innovative sentence, as well as the potential harm of sentencing Hernandez to extended jail time.
According to Crowell, the judge did not state valid reasons for his sentence. Spilseth said a long prison term would do more harm than good, and he is correct. Prison is not so much a correctional facility as it is a storage space for criminals. Perhaps sending offenders to jail punishes them, but it does not change them. Shoving criminals in jails sends an awful message to offenders that they are the sworn enemies of society, and that the world opposes them. While prison is necessary to harbor true criminals and protect the rights of responsible citizens, Hernandez can not be categorized as a true, hardened law-breaker.
Crowell claimed that the sentence sends a discouraging and demoralizing message to public citizens and police officers. This is highly doubtful. Police officers come in contact with repeat offenders frequently and arguably are more aware than most others how prisons fail to rehabilitate criminals. Surely, law-enforcement officials understand that many criminals lack skills, values and opportunities, and they definitely do not gain them in prison. Instead, many amateur criminals emerge from jail a greater threat than ever. Too often, prisons serve as a training ground for the criminal way of life. Certainly, the police and public are sensitive to the need for better methods of reforming criminals. For minor offenders like Hernandez, who show an unusual aptitude for academics, jail time will not help them, or society, either.
Not surprisingly, members of the Latino fraternity that Hernandez has joined found that he is very different from the character portrayed by the prosecutor. Crowell, who plans to appeal the sentence, not only misrepresented him but misunderstands the potential for the judge’s ruling. Unfortunately, either Crowell is interested only in arguing her case, or she is unaware of the possible benefits of the judge’s sentence vs. the probable harm of jail time. Although her job is to defend the public, she can best accomplish this by supporting Spilseth’s progressive and promising decision.
At the University, Hernandez will live in an entirely different environment with supportive peers. Sending Hernandez to jail, as Crowell would prefer, will not provide him with any such positive support. Furthermore, throwing another offender in prison will not teach society anything new about rehabilitation or justice and will not benefit anyone in the long run. If sentencing Hernandez to college and a life of responsibility proves successful, then society will learn plenty about remediation. Jails are not therapeutic systems of reform, but depositories for criminals. In the promising case of Hernandez, Crowell and other critics need to understand the need for more progressive solutions.