January 22, 2006
By Helen Ubiñas, Courant Staff Writer
At first I wasn't sure if Jeffrey Lee
even heard me.
The prosecutor stared at the docket
sheets taped to the wall and wouldn't look at me when I approached
him in court Friday.
When I repeated myself, he tersely
told me to talk to his boss, Hartford State's Attorney Jim Thomas.
Lee wasn't talking. The defense lawyer
and the judge weren't talking. And neither was the National Guardsman
who stood up on Steven Debow's behalf a day before he allegedly
killed two people in a bodega stickup.
And I can't say I blame them. They
must all feel like hell right about now. They shouldn't.
We live in the Age of Zero Tolerance.
Zero tolerance for grade-schoolers caught with "contraband"
in class, no matter how ludicrous the result. Zero tolerance for
illegal immigrants, no matter how unjust the outcome. Zero tolerance
for the NBA player who went into the stands last week, even though
he thought he was defending his wife from a loudmouthed fan.
Folks like zero tolerance because it's
easy: no argument, no nuance, no thought required. No pain if things
go wrong, as they apparently did so badly in the case of Debow.
Rationally, Thomas said, Lee knows
he did what he was supposed to do. But emotionally, you wonder,
"What if?" Thomas wondered that about 10 years ago when,
while he was working on a warrant for a man suspected of murder,
the man killed again.
"I'll never forget that,"
And chances are neither will anyone
who had anything to do with Steven Debow's second chance.
But from what I know, they did everything
right. The system is supposed to cut a break for a kid like Debow
- a first offender, high school graduate, due to serve his country
in Afghanistan with the National Guard.
And many times, it does. "We see
so many young lives ruined because of criminal charges," Thomas
said. "It was reasonable to think we might have a chance here
to allow one young man to realize his potential."
In fact, there was no reason to think
otherwise. Debow was someone, it seemed, leniency was meant for.
And not just on paper: People who knew him - teachers, neighbors,
friends - all said the same thing. They were stunned by news that
he was accused of two murders.
"He was cookies and milk,"
one neighbor said.
And if you look at the spectrum of
what the courts are dealing with in terms of kids with guns, Debow
was somewhere near the bottom: He was caught in possession of a
gun without a permit. As Lee noted in court, had he been a year
older, he could have obtained a permit to carry it legally, given
his clean record.
Of course, not everyone agrees with
that. Eric Crawford, district violence prevention specialist for
Hartford schools, said gun violence is so pervasive in Hartford
that any gun-related offense should result in jail time. "We
have to get people's attention," he said. "We have to
send the message that when it comes to guns, they're just not tolerated
"When it comes to guns, the law
should be black and white."
But there's a price for black and white:
A young man with a good background and a promising future makes
a stupid mistake. And without a break, he becomes just another jobless
ex-con with a record and no prospects.
There's no doubt the deaths of a young
mother and her employee were tragic. But it would also be a tragedy
if we say "Never again - zero tolerance," and the next
deserving kid who comes along doesn't get that second chance.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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