Friday, June 12, 2009

The Banality of Sweetness

The Banality of Sweetness

Himself teaches Monday and Thursday nights and returns after my bedtime. The kids fend for themselves with leftovers. They eat on the couch in front of the t.v. and I don’t even give a crap if they don’t use napkins. Alone in my bed I have to be careful to insert bookmark and remove reading glasses by myself before I doze. Other nights, when the light goes off and we adjust our pillows and I fall against him, I drink in that this is the best moment of the day. I have broken myself now of the lifelong habit of after dinner grazing but before this, the one benefit of him working late was that I could eat whatever I wanted, regardless how crunchy or crumbly or smelly, in bed. Now that avenue of pleasure is closed to me and Monday and Thursday nights are simply to be endured. I struggle often to sleep through the night and sometimes resort to Atavan, but last night I woke up to find my beloved returned and beside me reading. “You’re here,” I mumble. He smooths my hair and whispers, “Go to sleep.” I drift off again but for a brief moment there is a rush of peace and I am thankful for whatever it was that caused me to wake up.

Stephanie Lazarus, a well-respected LAPD detective was arrested for murdering twenty-three years ago, Sherri Rasmussen, who had married her ex-boyfriend. Sherri was a nurse and the close friend and roommate of my most stalwart friend, protector and advocate, Jayne. All of us girlfriends have known for years that Jayne’s roommate had been murdered in an unsolved crime. A few months ago Jayne received a call out of the blue from a detective reporting that the case had been reopened. She was asked to submit a DNA sample herself. It is good that the murder is solved. It is rotten to have all this dredged up again and to look at how much life you have lived in the twenty-three years since another’s was taken.

I wonder if Stephanie Lazarus has an odd relief from that little kernel of fear that I can’t imagine would have ever absented itself. For twenty-three years she has known that if she were discovered she would spend the rest of her life in prison. Now that is sure and certain. In my mind’s eye I see gray dullness, finite and infinite, emerging from the decades that she must have been spent on edge and wary.

Sherri’s father had long suspected that Lazarus was involved in his daughter’s murder. Sherri had noted to him that Lazarus had shown up at her workplace and harassed her and had even broken into her condominium. He wrote a letter to the LAPD detectives in charge of the case implicating Lazarus and made many phone calls. He was told, “You watch too many movies,” and he finally gave up. Perhaps more interesting than the disposition of Ms. Lazarus will be the repercussions for what seems irrefutably to be an LAPD cover up.

Stephanie Lazarus will probably die in prison. Will those who mourn Sherri, who herself died on the floor of a Van Nuys condo, after being beaten and bitten and finally shot, find comfort Stephanie's punishment? Will closure come with the vindication of Sherri’s dad’s suspicions and the revelation of widespread police corruption? It is good that an unsolved murder is solved but I do not believe that anyone will be made to feel better or find any comfort in this. Sometimes it is correct and righteous to permanently lock a person up and if Ms. Lazarus is found guilty she is probably one of those persons. I am glad I am not one who decides such things.

Our compassion for the victims of crimes has perhaps compromised our faith in mercy and redemption. The California Three Strikes Habitual Offender Law, in the form of Proposition 184 was passed in 1994. It doesn’t seem that draconian to give folks three chances and then put them away for a long time or even forever after that. After the second strike, the offender is sentenced automatically to twice what the sentence would have been for a first offense. After three strikes, the sentence is 25 years to life. The law, however, is written in such a way that Leandro Andrade received two twenty-five year to life sentences (and sentences cannot be served concurrently under three strikes) for stealing 9 children’s videotapes. The Supreme Court refused to consider this a cruel and unusual punishment and Andrade will be 87 when he is eligible for parole, quite a debt to society for having stolen, among other titles, "Free Willy."

Under Three Strikes, many juvenile felony offenses count and for many inmates, first-- and often second-- strikes are for juvenile crimes. Time elapsed between crimes does not mitigate three strikes. Also, strikes are not amassed on a per case basis, but by counts. Multiple charges in a single case often add up to three or four strikes. Second and third strikers can only reduce their sentence time by participating in training, work or education by one-fifth, reducing many inmates' motivation to participate in self-improvement activities. Non-strikers are eligible to reduce their sentences by one-half for participation in such programs.

For an example of how this law has altered sentencing I’ll use the crime of receiving stolen property. If the iPod I bought from a very skinny girl with tattoos from Craig’s List happened to have been hot and 35 years ago as a teenager I had been busted twice for a felony like injuring someone in a fight or selling pot, before three strikes my sentence would be about two years. Since three strikes, I would be put away for 25 years to life. At present, 44 percent of inmates serving under the three strikes law were convicted for serious or violent offenses but the other 56% were convicted for non-serious, non-violent offenses. It currently costs about 35k a year to house an inmate but this jumps to about 50k for inmates 50 or older and three strikes has driven way up the average age of a California prisoner. The Three Strikes Law is estimated to cost about five hundred million dollars a year and for the sake of fiscal prudence and to end the proliferation of what seems, despite what the Supreme Court (which I really hope Obama has another few cracks at) ruled, cruel and unusual punishment, I hope Three Strikes is modified to pertain only to criminals who are potentially violent and with more latitude for the consideration of individual circumstances.

Every prison in the state of California holds at least twice as many inmates as it was designed to hold. Many inmates are crammed into gymnasiums, often in triple bunks. Medical, psychological, educational and vocational services are inadequate to meet the needs of the population and in the face of our enormous deficit these programs will inevitably be reduced even more. Sadly, the parole protocol doesn’t do much to reduce the chances of recidivism either.

Upon release from prison a parolee receives two hundred dollars and a referral to a parole officer. Because of funding allocations, with few exceptions, parolees are returned to the communities where their arrests took place. Take a moment to consider this and fully digest how boneheaded it is. Parolees are seldom released to halfway houses or transitional programs and with the resources of only $200.00 and a parole officer with a huge caseload, are expected to find housing and employment, stay off drugs and build a new support system in a neighborhood that most likely is not teeming with role models. This, thanks to three strikes, will follow, for many, 20 or more years of incarceration. What kind of job could you get if you’d never touched a computer, your references, if you had any, were more than twenty years old and you had a felony conviction? It would be enormously cost effective and reduce recidivism if the last two years of a sentence were spent in a transitional community parole program.

Stephanie Lazarus, by virtue of having been able to live with herself for twenty-three years after being driven by sexual jealousy to take a life, is probably not fit to live among us and probably will not ever again. But I hope we are able to look at victims of drugs and poverty and fucked-up families and stupid impulsive immature choices with more compassion and that as a society we reaffirm our belief in mercy and redemption.

Prisoners are unlikely to seek out psychological services lest this brands them as weak. Perhaps, Lazarus bought into the LAPD culture, that like prison culture is driven by testosterone, and felt, like many folks, that partaking of mental health services betrays a character deficiency. For many, even if they don’t ascribe to the stigma that only weak lesser people need to see a shrink, these services are simply not available. The kids who most need excellent schools are the most likely to be languishing in rotten ones. Until these two enormous social problems are remedied, I see little hope of making much of a dent in the ancillary evils of substance abuse, violence and crime. My dystopian vision is a California where the availability of mental health services dwindles, bad schools are left to molder and the Three Strikes Law remains in force unchanged and all I can see are vast prisons, infinite gray dullness.

I will post this piece and lock up the office, thankful for having survived another week, this one better than the last, which was also better than the one before. I will buy a challah and we will make Shabbat. I will light the candles and pray for my little family. I hope my boys will forgive the selfishness that has radically changed their world and meant that so many of the things they'd taken as a given have been taken. I hope to be good enough to nurture the optimism they’ll need to do good themselves. I pray for everyone who loved Sherri Rasmussen. It is time that is the healing balm and not punishment and vengeance. I pray that Stephanie Lazarus strives during her life in prison to make reparations to those who loved Sherri and to the human race and to herself. I pray for my penpal. My whole family is blessed by his prayers for us. I hope that the world he returns to in 2017 is better equipped to welcome him back than the world of 2009.

My beloved is not working late and I will not have to worry about falling asleep with my glasses on. His long slender fingers will tame my wild Jew hair as they have for the twenty years in which it's gone from brown so dark 'twas nearly black to gray. Nearly every day ends for me with this sweetness and it is this final moment of wakefulness, almost banal in it's ordinariness, that reminds me that the world can be a sweeter place and of my obligation to help make it so.

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