By Eric Thomas
Detroit continues to hum from the story of Steven Utash, the victim of a vicious beating on the east side of Detroit; a man who stopped to help the pedestrian child he struck with his work truck, a man whose sense of humanity may still cost him his life at the hands of people who, driven by their own sense of street justice, will hopefully, deservedly, spend much of the rest of their lives in jail for what they’ve done.
This story is a human tragedy and it involves all of us, not just Mr. Utash and his family, but the men and boys who did this to him. They made their own choices and they should be held accountable, but they are among the people involved in this incident whose lives now lay in ashes.
How could this happen? we ask. We see no humanity in the people who perpetrated this outrage. They’ve been called animals, garbage, and a million other things; we’ve searched our limited knowledge of pop psychology, blaming broken families or a degradation of “values,” whatever that actually means.
As the details of the perpetrators emerged, and these men are innocent until proven otherwise, a pattern has emerged. One of them, according to reports, has eight cocaine possession charges on his criminal record. Another is a regular in juvenile court, deemed “incorrigible” by court authorities on three separate times, the first only two days after he turned eleven years old.
The people responsible for this criminal beating made mistakes early and often, which goes a long way toward illustrating this country’s towering problem with the rate of recidivism. A 2010 report by the National Institute of Justice found that 67.5% of people who spent time in jail were rearrested within three years. That number is staggering, when you marinate on the true human cost. Those aren’t just numbers, they’re human beings who, because of their choices, have been caste into a permanent lower class. They’ve made a few wrong turns and those turns will haunt them forever.
How does this happen? What choice do we give them? We live in a country where prison terms are, basically, permanent. If a person is convicted of any crime, that follows them around for decades. They can’t get a job, can’t get help; their resources are limited, so they have no choice but to return to the same criminal lifestyle that put them there in the first place in order to survive. The lack of a lifeline out of poverty creates a permanent class of people who have nothing to lose.
Mr. Utash lays in a medically induced coma because a crowd of people decided to act out their own brand of street justice, but the justice system carried out in courtrooms can be just as brutal. The United States leads the world in the number of people in prison per capita, and all of them are consigned to the society’s lower rungs. They will likely be there until they die.
This nation was envisioned, always, as a land of opportunity, but increasingly, that opportunity is in short supply. This isn’t a political argument, it’s the truth. The income gap has only become more vast, and it’s increasingly permanent. Promotions, raises and upward mobility is available only for a select few, the middle class is disappearing as America becomes a socio-economic caste system, and the the few who hit the lottery and climb out are held up as examples for the many. Most people are permanently stuck.
Production is up among America’s working class, but wages are down, and America’s land of opportunity now looks like a land of plenty for a select few who live in costal castles and complain that the government hasn’t given them enough money or tax breaks. The winners have taken the spoils and fortified them. The rising tide has not risen all boats, it’s sunk them, while the rest must fight for a scrap of wood to stay afloat.
A simple possession charge banishes many in America today from the possibility that this country has long promised. Jobs are still scarce, even six years since the spark of the Great Recession, and it doesn’t appear to be getting any better. In the aftermath, the rich got richer, and the poor took the brunt. The ladder to the middle has been kicked away, as recent college graduates scrape to find a job, any job, with their backs breaking under the weight of crushing debt. If you are charged with a crime early in life, it’s likely that you will never climb out from under it in America today. Is that what we want?
Non-violent criminal convictions shouldn’t count against anyone’s record. If we want to continue this nonsensical war on drugs, we should at least change the rules. There shouldn’t be anyone who should spend their lives defending a non-violent charge. Has America turned into the plot from Les Miserables? More and more, it seems like we’re repeating history.
Mr. Utash is the victim, but society in general is the problem, and the men who beat him are a symptom of a disease we all share a part in. We cannot live tomorrow unless we learn the lessons of the past. An unstable system, where the poor have no ability to dust themselves off, where there is no upward mobility, cannot and will not endure. This isn’t a political problem. This has nothing to do with liberalism or conservatism. This is a crisis, and the longer we continue to ignore it, the worse it will become.