“Justice is truth in action.” -Benjamin Disraeli
The inscription in the wall of the lobby of the courthouse is hardly noticeable and difficult to read. It is placed by the four elevators that lead up to the numerous courtrooms, where, day in and day out, judicial officers make decisions having a major impact on individuals’ lives. “Justice is truth in action,” the inscription reads. It seems poignant but as if it was placed there as an afterthought, much like the “justice” that was delivered to an individual in those hallowed halls not too long ago.
“Jason” (not the person’s actual name to protect his identity) was placed on informal probation for five years after voluntarily pleading guilty to a third offense of driving under the influence. He had the option of doing 120 days in jail and an 18 month alcohol education program he already attended and completed previously for his second DUI offense, or doing 30 days in jail and attending a 2 1/2 year program. Although he knew he would do a small fraction of whatever jail option he chose, he decided to attend the longer program as he was intent upon achieving his goal of sobriety.
The 2 1/2 year program has intensive individual and group counseling and AA meetings, as well as book reports due the first year. The following 6 months consist of less frequent counseling and AA meetings. The last year is 30 minutes of counseling every two weeks and AA meetings. Throughout the program participants must complete 120 hours of volunteer community service.
Approximately 6 months after being placed on probation, Jason was laid off from his job as his employer closed their offices in the Los Angeles area. With the economic climate being what it is, Jason had a very difficult time finding employment. The stress and strain of being unemployed weighed heavily on him and he struggled with his sobriety but continued in the program.
One year after being laid off, Jason finally located employment. The job was in Chicago where he was from originally. And even better, his wife found she could transfer within her company to Chicago as well. Jason had just the last year of the program to finish and he located a state of Illinois licensed DUI program that provided above and beyond what the California program required. During the time he was unemployed, Jason had finished all of the volunteer community service hours required. He had even paid in full the cost of the program here in California. Intent upon making his sobriety a priority, Jason located an AA sponsor in Chicago so he could have support during the time of transition and beyond. All that was necessary now was to ask the judge for permission to complete the program in Chicago.
Armed with a progress report from his current program, documentation of the Illinois program, documentation of completion of the volunteer service, a letter from his prospective employer, a letter from his wife’s employer verifying the transfer of her employment, a letter from his new AA sponsor in Chicago and a very positive attitude, Jason requested that he be allowed to continue and complete the requirements of the 2 ½ year program in Chicago.
Jason’s performance in the program was a success story; a narrative that should have been hailed as an example for all those who may unfortunately find themselves in the dire position in which Jason found himself just after this third DUI. This man, struggling with an addiction whose actions had placed other’s lives at risk, had made a dramatic change in his life. More than that, he recognized that his progress rested on his commitment to maintain his sobriety each and every day – one day at a time. He was willing to make that effort not only for himself as an individual but to ensure his capacity to be an asset, not a liability, to society.
But the judge – not so much.
Although the judge verbally commended Jason’s progress, he stated that it would be impossible for Jason to complete the program in Illinois, because it was a “California” program. But, Jason pleaded, all the requirements of the program here in California are provided in the Illinois program. The judge’s response was that it cannot be a California program if it is in Illinois. If Jason wanted to move to Chicago he would have to do the difference between the 30 days in jail that he already did and the 120 days in jail that had been the other option when Jason made his original choice.
Jason, as well as everyone in the courtroom knew that he would do little time in jail on a 90 day sentence. The real issue before the court was whether the judge was concerned with acknowledging the efforts Jason had made while providing Jason the ongoing template for sustained success and continuing to protect society by doing so. The judge was not so inclined. Following the tenor of the prosecutor’s argument, the judge abandoned his role as the arbiter of what is just and what is unjust. He abandoned his assignment seek a clearly equitable result.
Jason did 1 day in jail on the 90 day sentence. The program was deleted as a requirement of Jason’s probation. He and his wife moved to Chicago and both began new jobs. The judge could have kept in place the structure of the program that had been the guide to Jason’s success. The judge could have furthered the benefit to society by doing so. But he did not.
“Justice is truth in action” – not in this courtroom.