Last May, I began an internship in a probation office on a whim. My time there would ultimately change my life course. During my first week on the job, I was merely an eager-to-please shadower to an older Probation Officer who was planning to retire in the following weeks.
My tattered, yellow legal pad became my Bible—filled with notes on how to complete at least a dozen different probation officer tasks: screen urine for substances, research how much a client owes in restitution, and advise individuals on which apartment complexes accept people with a history of felony charges.
After 10 days of shadowing Vance, I began conducting one-on-one appointments with clients from his heavy caseload on my own. That’s when I met Jay.
Jay is a black man nearing 5’6”, with salt-and-pepper hair, and is in his late 70’s. He immediately had a jokingly sassy answer to nearly everything I asked of him. Each wisecrack was accompanied by a grin on his face, making me feel immediately at ease.
Jay is one of those clients who is well-known around the office--a relatively negative thing in the world of probation. He has a thick, banged-up file that details his long history with the court system. Jay has a kind disposition, but his sizable file seems to perpetually precede him in most things. We began chatting at least once a week on the phone, often resulting in a chapter from his tumultuous life story being told.
Society tells us that “bad” people get arrested, and then they go to jail. We treat convicted felons (like Jay) as inherently poisonous individuals who only warrant our distrust. Are people born with this “evil” or does it develop over time? Does it always coincide with poverty, violence, and the uneducated?
Perhaps it’s more comfortable to assume that some people are born malevolent rather than acknowledge the many external factors at play: financial instability, race, domestic abuse, mental illness, lack of education, sexual abuse, congenital disorders, and addiction, just to name a few.
To an outsider, Jay’s multitudinous larceny and possession charges are cut-and-dry proof that he is a “bad” person-- an unworthy person. For an insider in the world of corrections, Jay is one of the millions of Americans whose life is caught in the volatile crossfire of addiction and incarceration. Their stories are valuable, and should not be shunned.
Jay’s stories always come back to his crack addiction. His periods of crack usage coincide with the charges on his record and have cost him his family, his job, and his freedom. Jay has been in and out of the Virginia courts system for decades now, doing various stints in jail alternated with periods of supervised probation.
This begs the question, is it primarily Jay committing these crimes, or is it his addiction? Substance abuse is a mental health disorder, diagnosable by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5), but we treat it by locking people up and isolating them from society. We have them owe hundreds of dollars to courts, and then suspend their driver’s licenses when they can’t pay. Instead, we should support them with practical tools and suspended judgement.
And so, I ask that the next time someone tells you that people with criminal charges are second-hand citizens, that you think about Jay, and his story. We should acknowledge the propensity that each of us has to be Jay. Jay was just reincarcerated. He will probably remain there for years to come. We are supposedly the generation that wants to disband deterministic attitudes, so let’s act on it.