fanfare for fanfan
as reported in the new york times today, the supreme court ruled against the "mandatory-minimum" sentencing guidelines that for two decades have tied judges' hands and sent minor-league drug dealers away for far longer than they deserve. judges will now be able to use discretion in using sentencing guidelines, which should theoretically result in more "reasonable" sentences.
of course, while this legal "remedy" will treat a symptom of america's prison problem--e.g., the number of long-term inmates--it does not address such fundamental root-causes as america's insatiable demand for drugs, its racist justice system, or the way that structural inequalities and limited opportunities push young black men, and plenty of other "caught-up" folks, into being pushers and then into jail-cells. still, it provides some real relief to individuals, families, and communities who need not suffer further from excessive and discriminatory punishment practices.
as someone generally interested in prison- and drug-war-reform, i was also relieved that the decision finally came down in this manner. this case in particular, however, was especially interesting to me, as it involved an old acquaintance.
this gets confusing, for there are several cases at play here, as you can read in the opening paragraph of the decision. my friend is not booker or blakely, but "respondent fanfan" as they call him here, or ducan, as i always knew him. as you can see, ducan's case finally brought the whole thing to the supreme court. here's the short of it: according to the jury, ducan should have served 5-6 years; according to additional evidence submitted at the sentence hearing (where no jury was present), ducan should have been given 15-16 years; relying on the blakely ruling, the judge decided to impose a sentence based on the jury's verdict alone; the gov't didn't like this and filed an appeal. regardless of all the legal battles at stake here, however, what is clear to me is that the world is made no better a place by putting ducan in jail for ten more years than he already has to serve.
first, i suppose i should mention what ducan was being sentenced for. he was charged with conspiring to distribute cocaine, arrested and convicted in maine, of all places. one more note of specific interest: the prosecutors were pushing to increase ducan's sentence because "a preponderance of the evidence" (presented at the sentence hearing) showed that he was dealing crack. because crack was not mentioned in the indictment, the judge insisted on basing the sentence on the jury's verdict. of course, this practice of assigning greater penalties to crack than powder cocaine is a perfect example of how america's ridiculously racist drug-war and prison-industrial complex work.
ducan is a few years older than i am, but we grew up in the same neighborhood, attended the same schools, played on the same basketball courts. we shared many friends in common, and shared lots of friendly moments. our stomping ground was west, west cambridge (i.e., way past the brattle street side of west cambridge), where working-class italians, irish, and blacks (including second-generation kids with parents from haiti, jamaica, and other caribbean islands) all got along just fine. [ducan was from a haitian family, but i didn't realize that until much later, when i finally learned his last name.] most of my memories of ducan are from this one summer years ago--perhaps my twelfth?--during which i spent several hours a day playing basketball, joking around, and hanging out with ducan, who was working then as a "park instructor"--one of the best summer jobs available to older teens in cambridge. he was stationed at glacken field, a five minute walk from my house (or his). incidentally (or not--i actually found ducan's role rather inspiring), i would hold the very same position a few years later. i remember in particular that summer that ducan took my younger brother, an enterprising baller, under his wing, instructing him on the finer points of the dribble and the jumpshot.
in contrast to other older kids in the neighborhood, ducan was never a bully. i might even describe him as gentle, though that may be a mis-characterization. at any rate, i can at least say that he never picked on me or my brother, which was not the case for all the older kids in our neighborhood. he was what people around here would call a "good kid." seriously. he was able to be humble and radiate confidence, able to be kind and yet tough. sure, as we got older, there was the occasional fishy story, like the one where he bought a brand new car with the cash in his pocket, but generally, especially in the pantheon of the "bridge boys" (as the neighborhood 'gang' was called), he seemed like an angel. my memories of ducan are of a man smiling, joking, playing basketball with grace and style. a mentor, teacher, coach, referee.
the last time i saw ducan was six or seven years ago. we bumped into each other in harvard square, and we had a friendly chat. he told me all about his burgeoning hip-hop video-production company and about the interviews he was doing with MCs and DJs. i wished him luck at the time. too bad he never got lucky enough with that venture to put the risky business behind him.
but a man's gotta eat, right?
and though that sounds like a cliche, i can't dispute it. i can't really knock the hustle, especially when people like ducan--i.e., young black males--are so often relegated to filling these perilous niches in our sick society. (reminds me of the way that jews in europe were, for centuries, forced into such stigmatized yet necessary occupations as tax-collecters, pawn-brokers, and money-lenders--middle-men for the land-owning elite.)
no, i can't knock the hustle (at least not until my next blog), but i'm deeply frustrated and saddened that a man of ducan's talents--someone with such intelligence, kindness, and grace, someone with such potential--now has to sit in a cell for a little lifetime. (i think he ended up with 6 and 1/2.) of course, it could be worse. it could have been 16 and 1/2.
so here's a little fanfare for fanfan--and all the others who might benefit from this new ruling.
hang in there, duke.