MAXWELL:  Redemption starts with compassion in justice

1/10/2008 – Printed in the NATIONAL section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

Justice combines the letter of the law, fairness, common sense and a little compassion. I came to this realization by way of personal experience.
My son got involved with drugs and petty street crime at age 13, going to jail three times before he was 15. A few weeks before his 16th birthday, he was arrested again. The judge was going to put him away for a very long time, but I pleaded with the judge to give my son another chance and to release him into my custody.
My son came to live with me here in St. Petersburg. For a year, I constantly reminded him that if he committed another crime, the judge would lock him up and throw away the key. He turned his life around. Now, he makes a great salary as a chef.
My son’s rehabilitation was possible only because a Pinellas judge had the wisdom to take a chance on him. Remembering my son’s success, I am impressed with Hillsborough Circuit Judge Gregory Holder’s handling of the case involving Avery Adams, 20, Andrew Adkins, 20, and Demetrius Wise, 19, all convicted of committing a string of robberies with BB guns. The case was reported in the St. Petersburg Times.
Holder could have given the young men long sentences. But combining fairness, common sense and compassion, he gave the young men sentences that did not include jail, and he withheld adjudication so they will not be considered felons when they apply for jobs.
As far as I am concerned, these young men received a miracle, and they should do everything to honor Holder’s decision to give them a new lease on life.
Here is how Holder explained his action: “It’s very easy to be hard. It’s very easy to max someone out. You are but a moment away from what I refer to as the seventh level of hell, Florida State Prison.”
Like Holder, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Daniel Perry gave another lawbreaker a second chance. Instead of sending American Idol finalist Jessica Sierra to jail for violating her probation and becoming unruly in Ybor City, Perry agreed to send the 22-year-old singer, who is pregnant, to a residential alcohol and drug treatment facility in California.
“You’re going to get one chance and one chance only,” Perry told Sierra.
After receiving one year of treatment, she is to serve two years of additional probation (late Wednesday, the facility said it is full and cannot take Sierra).
Wary of Sierra’s track record, Perry further warned the singer that she should not attempt to use this opportunity as a means to advance her celebrity: “This is not a career. I don’t want her giving interviews. I don’t want her on TV. I don’t want anybody glamorizing the fact that she’s a drug addict. I’m over that.”
Coincidentally, while Holder and Perry were showing leniency, a bill in the interest of young convicts was being prepared to file in the Legislature. Written by a legal team at the Florida State University Law School, the Children in Prison Rehabilitation Act would make eligible for parole some of the 122 inmates serving life sentences for crimes they committed before the age of 16. Some of these inmates committed murders, while others never held a weapon.
To be eligible for parole, according to the Times, an inmate must have been 16 or younger when the crime occurred, served at least eight years, and have a sentence of at least 10 years without parole. Inmates will be ineligible if they have been adjudicated as habitual offenders or as sexual offenders prior to their crimes, or if they committed an offense after going to prison.
The spirit of the Children in Prison Rehabilitation Act is wise and humane: “Children are different from adults because they have a greater capacity for rehabilitation.”
I believe, as do Judge Holder, Judge Perry and the legal team at FSU, that we should try to redeem as many people, especially the young, as we can. My son is an example of a young person who got a second chance and became a solid citizen.