Tag: justice

Ft. Hood: An Issue of Gun Control or Mental Health?

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Please see my take on this tragedy, published on theLaw.tv yesterday.  Ft. Hood

This week, there was another shooting tragedy on the Ft. Hood military base. Ivan Lopez, an Iraq war veteran and Army specialist, shot three people to death, injuring sixteen, before turning the gun on himself. A military policewoman bravely confronted him, which brought his actions to an end.

Unfortunately, Ft. Hood has been struck by tragedy before. In 2009, thirteen people were shot and killed by Nidal Malik Hasan. The difference in the 2009 tragedy is that Hasan had a clear agenda. He had been self-radicalized and took a terrorist stance against the United States. He was given a life sentence for his actions.

In the present shooting, the Army verified that the Lopez was being treated for depression and anxiety, as well as being evaluated for post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Additionally, Lopez purchased the weapon used in the shooting several days before. He lawfully held a concealed weapons permit.

So the debate re-emerges. Is this another case of a mentally unstable person getting access to weapons? Are our veterans being properly treated for PTSD resulting from combat?

Keep in mind, the majority of people that suffer from PTSD, or any other type of mental illness, are not violent. Some key components of PTSD involve an inability to sleep, nightmares, flashbacks, and difficulty adjusting to civilian life outside of the combat zone. It appears that the Army was in the process of evaluating Lopez, and treating him accordingly. From what is currently known, it seems that the Army was in fact working with Lopez to address his mental health issues. What is not known is Lopez’s motivation for committing this horrible crime. The question will be if there were any warning signs that the shooter’s depression was turning violent and what, if anything, could have been done about it. The answer will hopefully be uncovered in the coming weeks.

The next inevitable issue is that of gun control. Many ask, “how could someone with mental health concerns be able to get a firearm?” This is a situation where the laws that are currently in place adequately addressed what was known at the time of purchase. When the shooter went to the gun shop, he was a current, serving member of the armed forces. He had not been officially declared to be mentally ill; there was no indication that he was suicidal or homicidal. There were no court orders against him, nor was he a convicted felon. If you look at his profile in a general sense, he is someone a gun store owner would have no hesitation in selling a firearm to. As such, he was lawfully able to purchase a firearm.

What is most troubling is that there is a policy at Ft. Hood forbidding firearms on the base. It is clear that this policy has not been enforced on two separate occasions. Unfortunately, Ft. Hood is a huge area, with 90,000 people. It may be physically impossible to search every person. The military is tasked with finding a solution.

At the end of the day, our vets have sacrificed so much, so that we can enjoy the liberties that we have as Americans. The biggest issue should be how can we help them? This is not a case of gun control going awry. It’s a case of human tragedy, with a reminder of how fragile the human mind can be.

This is an issue of caring for our veterans and making sure that those who suffer from mental illness have access to thorough care. And that is where our focus should be.

Melba Pearson is an attorney in Florida. Follow her on Twitter @ResLegalDiva.

Even the Monsters Are Worth Saving…

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So, like many of you, I am an addict of the show “Scandal”. Not that I want to be Olivia Pope (although I do love her clothes, but hate her romantic decisions), it does give an interesting look of the behind the scenes of the dirty world of politics and national security. Whether it’s art imitating life accurately remains to be seen. But in last week’s episode, Olivia’s dad gave an impassioned speech about “even the monsters need saving”. This was in response to Olivia’s frustration about the fact that everyone around her seemed to be amoral at best, and used murder as a tool. “No one wears the white hat anymore” was her complaint. Olivia’s dad basically said, “YOU are the savior, and the one that drags every last one of us into the light.”

The monologue really hit home for me. Many times, people ask me, “why do you bother?” In my line of work as a prosecutor, I have challenges left, right and center. At times, I have victims who have no interest in participating in the prosecution. Even though they were the ones that were hurt, they are reluctant due to fear, apathy, or a deep distrust of the system. The community, especially the African American community, distrust the motives of a prosecutor. They assume your role is to lock up young men of color at any cost. On the other side, the hard core conservatives (some of whom are in my profession), look at the work I do in the community and say “why bother? You can’t save them”.

So why do I bother? Why do I take time away from myself, from my husband, skip lunch hours, to give lectures to young students in rough areas? Why do I get hands on in the nastiest housing projects? Why do I get frustrated when the media takes a narrow, sensationalized view of the legal system instead of the truth? Why do I sit down next to defendants, shackled, and who are facing a life sentence based on my recommendation but are about to take less as a plea and say to them “get it right this time…F$&! it up and I personally will lock the door and throw away the key?” Why do I persist in a job where no one thanks you by word or by paycheck?

Not out of weakness. Not out of my liberal leanings. Not out of perceived government employee laziness.

But because I want to touch one. Just one person a day. I know I can’t save them all. That would be ludicrous to believe.

But if one kid can say “you know, I remember when this chick who was a lawyer came to speak. She said xyz, and it stuck with me”. If one defendant says “someone offered me a chance, and I took it and turned my life around”. If one person in the community says “I was wrong about what prosecutors do, they are not all bad.” Then, I have succeeded.

Not everyone is born a monster. Some are, and yes, they need to be put down. HARD. I have no problem doing so. Others are monsters by lifestyle, and nothing in this world will change them. And again, I am there, ready with the proverbial smack down.

But it is those minds who are still open. Those minds, that need a nudge in the right direction, to get right. To get it right. Those in the crowd are who I want.

And now, I can quote Olivia Pope’s dad and say “even the monsters need saving”.

Kids Suing Parents: Bringing Back Old Fashioned Discipline

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The legal world (as well as social media) has been ablaze as a result of 18 year old Rachel Canning’s attempt to sue her parents for living expenses. Shortly after Rachel’s lawsuit became public, there have been some reports that 80’s television star “Mr. T” was sued by a man claiming to be his son, under the grounds that Mr. T’s abandonment of him as a boy caused him to become a gang member.

 Rachel Canning claims that her parents were abusive, and their behavior forced her to move out of her parent’s home to a friend’s house. The parents, on the other hand, allege that Rachel refused to follow household rules. She stayed out late, came home intoxicated, and was disrespectful to her parents.

The judge in this case denied the teen’s motion for immediate support, but further motions, including money for college tuition, are pending. This story has been trending worldwide.  In Mr. T’s case, his alleged son, now in his 20’s, filed a lawsuit for $5.4 million dollars.  It was dismissed in 2013 because the filing fee was not paid in a timely manner.

The question is, what does this say about America, and how we discipline our kids?

A phenomenon that appears to be increasing is the fear of arrest as a result of disciplining your child.  The threat is of “Mom, Dad, if you touch me, I will call DCF/child protective services/the police”. As a result, many parents back down, and children are taught that they can misbehave without consequences. Additionally, they have learned to manipulate the system, with the clear message that threats can produce the desired consequences.

There is a very clear line between child abuse and discipline. Child abuse involves beating, burning or otherwise causing physical harm to a child. If a mother burns her child’s hand with an iron, that is abuse. If a father hits his son with a baseball bat, that is abuse. But spanking your child is NOT abuse.

 The criminal justice system has had to adapt to cultural differences that child rearing presents. While many American families utilize techniques such as having the child sit in a corner, or be in “time out”, many families from other countries are more physical in their methods of discipline. Having been raised in a Caribbean household, I was acutely aware of my boundaries as well as the uncomfortable consequences for misbehavior.

This is not to say that one is necessarily better than the other. Many sociologists have studied the area, coming to varied conclusions. The key is, every child is different. Some children respond to privileges being revoked; others may need more forceful reinforcement. But a parent should never be in fear of their children, or fearful to discipline them.

Fortunately, the judge saw through Rachel’s attempt to avoid the consequences of her actions. Her parents clearly told the court that if she returned to the family home, her tuition and all of her expenses would be paid. Today, the attorney for the Cannings announced that Rachel moved back into the family home; however, the lawsuit is still pending.

From a legal perspective, hopefully this will not set a nasty trend for kids to use the legal system to get around the authority of their parents, or punish their parents for whatever shortcomings they may have.

On a social perspective, this is a tragic situation for the Canning family. Having your personal affairs paraded through the media is certainly difficult, and it is clear this family is broken. Hopefully this family seeks counseling, because at the end of the day, they are tied by blood.

 And always will be.

The author Melba Pearson is an attorney in South Florida. Follow her on Twitter @ResLegalDiva

Detention or Jail? New Choices for Disruptive Students

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The school to prison pipeline. You may have never heard of it, but it is a growing issue.  Across the nation, students are being arrested for minor offenses.  Offenses that twenty years ago, would have gotten the student sent home, given detention, or at worst, suspended. Now, students are getting criminal records for misdemeanor charges such as loitering, trespass, and disorderly conduct — which boils down to fighting, staying on school grounds after hours, or being disruptive in class.

Last week, the country’s 6th largest school district, located in Broward County, Florida, took a large step in a new direction.  The superintendent of Broward County schools came together with the state attorney’s office, the police department, and the NAACP to empower school principals to decide when and how students would be arrested.  In the past, it was the school resource officer who made these determinations. The NAACP became involved, because they noted that a large amount of those arrested were students of color…and their peers were receiving warnings instead.

The new policy states that for non-violent charges like trespassing, harassment, incidents related to alcohol, possession of a misdemeanor amount of marijuana and drug paraphernalia, school officials are to work it out in house without an arrest. Options for punishment, in addition to traditional means, include participation in a week-long counseling program. No student would be arrested for a first time non-violent misdemeanor, but repeat offenses will receive an escalation in punishment. After a fifth incident, students are referred to law enforcement. The police will still handle felonies or serious threats.

This school to prison pipeline issue may be occurring as a result on our shifting society. In years past, there was a parent or relative that would be available to take a child from school.  Schools were more engaged with the family and the community. Now, with many parents working more than one job to make ends meet, or are the head of a single parent household, it is easier for the school to call the police than for the parent to leave work.  Some parents may be short on patience, and hope that an encounter with the criminal justice system will “scare them straight”.  Other parents may have deeper issues preventing them from being a role model and disciplinarian. On the other side, many schools and teachers are overworked as well as underfunded.  “Zero tolerance”, rather than taking the time to work with the child, is perceived as easier when resources are stretched thin.  Lastly, many beneficial after school programs, including organized sports, arts/crafts, and meals programs, have been cut in an attempt to save money.  These programs are instrumental in keeping kids on the right track, keeping them busy with positive activities. In these days of recessions and budget cuts, lawmakers need to be mindful of the trickle-down effect the lack of programming has, including an increase in criminal activity.

The key problem lays in the fact that very rarely does the criminal justice system help a child.  That initial contact often lays the groundwork for repeated criminal conduct, due the child being exposed to more experienced teens. Additionally, the child now develops a criminal record, which becomes a problem when applying for jobs, as well as financial aid for college.

The bottom line is, it takes a village to raise a child. As a prosecutor, I handled juvenile cases early in my career. The majority of the kids I saw were not bad kids.  It was the usual mischief that kids have gotten into from the beginning of time.  But putting kids in the system without addressing the underlying issues that caused the behavior is a formula for disaster.  Broward County has already seen a decrease in arrests as a result of this program, with positive feedback being given all around.  I hope that other school districts take their rightful place as a safe haven for learning, rather than a route to prison.

Published on theLaw.tv November 12, 2013.  http://news.thelaw.tv/2013/11/12/detention-or-jail-new-choices-for-disruptive-students/

Follow me on Twitter @ResLegalDiva.