04 February 2010

Prisoners and Captives, or I Wish I Had Gone to Law School

Once upon a time, I wanted to be a lawyer. I recently re-remembered that in high school, my AP American history teacher (who also taught the AP Government & Politics class I was in my senior year) said he imagined that one day I'd be a crusading lawyer with the ACLU or some such. At the time I was still semi-delusional about being a writer, but the idea of lawyering was planted in my brain. I was pretty politically conscious for a suburban high-school girl, and my senior year especially, did a bit of actual crusading (a very long story that still makes my blood boil, even now).
In college, I took a two-semester political science course called Constitutional Thought. It was essentially one year of reading Supreme Court decisions and talking about them; the second semester was a seminar of five students. We dug into constitutional law quite seriously.
By the time my last year of college rolled around, I didn't know what I wanted to do - I wanted to go out and Change The World. I took a practice LSAT (absolutely cold - had NO idea what I was getting into), and did mildly well.
Because I was dumb enough - or optimistic enough - at that point to think that all options were open to me and the world was my oyster, I didn't commit too seriously to any one path. I studied fairly lackadaisically for the real LSAT; my score improved by a grand total of one point (I placed in something like the 82 percentile. Not awful, but nothing to be very proud of, either). I decided my score wasn't high enough to qualify me for a good law school, and that was that. I ended up going down the literary primrose path, and here I sit, ABD, holding an MA from another institution, full of booklearning.

All well and good. I've never really regretted the decision to not pursue law school.

Until now.
And I am seriously, intensely, regretting that decision.

It's because of NPR - because of this series they did about the bail bond system in the US. I listened to it a week or two ago, shortly after the last segment aired. And it was one segment in particular - the first - that made me feel absolutely cold with regret and - some other, similar emotion that I really cannot place. A feeling of not doing enough, somehow.

The story within the story that got me: Leslie Chew, an ill-educated  - actually illiterate - man from Texas. Lived in his car, did odd jobs, handyman type stuff, for a meager living. One night, living in his car, it got very cold. He had no money, and stole four $30 blankets from a store. He was caught, arrested, taken to jail. And sucked into the bail-bond system.  [A friend, when I recounted this to her, exclaimed: "My god, it's just like Les Miserables!"]
This man had NO money. That's why he stole blankets worth a total of $120. He didn't have the money to post bail. His bail was set at $3500. Remember the crime: theft of four cheap blankets, to keep himself warm.
When the reporter meets him, Leslie Chew has been in jail for over six months.  He eventually left the jail after eight months - prosecutors gave him time served when he pled guilty. But the catch, the condition, the thing that made me feel like I have done a very bad thing by not going to law school - the catch was that Leslie Chew had to plead guilty to a felony.

a FELONY offence.
for stealing $120 worth of blankets to keep himself warm, because he lived in his car.
four crappy cheap blankets.
eight months in jail - his car was repossessed, all his former customers had moved on.
and a felony conviction on his record for the rest of his life.
You can read a nice summary here of what that means. Some highlights of felony conviction? You may not qualify for public assistance, including welfare, food stamps and federal student loans. You cannot own a firearm. Your ability to travel to other countries (like Canada, for instance) will be affected. You will have a very hard time finding work, because most employers do not want to hire convicted felons, even ones who were convicted for nonviolent offenses like stealing blankets because they were cold.  You lose the right to vote in most states.

Yeah - this man stole some cheap blankets, and lost the right to vote.

How? HOW did this happen? How is this possible?
What am I doing to help?

The answer to that last is: Not a blessed thing.
I could be a lawyer, right now, if I'd stuck with the track. If I'd studied harder, actually worked at those damn logic games, I could be a lawyer right this second. Helping people like this man.

Instead, what do I do?
well. that doesn't bear close examination.
My part-time work as a corporate wage-slave has become almost completely, literally unbearable.

My full-time work as an "intellectual" is - well. My job is to perpetuate privilege.

The NPR story concludes by telling us that Leslie Chew, the blanket-stealing felon, was unable to find work after leaving jail. He even went back to the jail to see if he could have his old job back, mopping floors in the jail. He was turned away; you have to be an inmate for that glamorous work.

The final sentence of the story: "Nobody has seen Leslie Chew since."

I feel incredibly guilty.
I wish I had gone to law school.

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