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Sometimes A Break Is Right Thing

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," he said.

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 in Hartford."

"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. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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