It was the first time I had ever visited a student in jail.

     Saline County Jail. After 2:30 p.m. on a Thursday. I had to cancel a class in order to make the visitation hours.

     There is nothing to like about the atmosphere of a jail facility. It is stark, stone, and foreboding.  No one should end up there. It is a path down a low road. And even worse, it quickly changes the options of life.

      From working toward a future career with a college degree just two semesters away to now having to traverse the justice system and concentrate on staying out of prison, the student looked out of place, wearing the orange jumpsuit, framed in the window through which I would talk to him by a telephone.

      It made me sick. It made me heartsick as well because I like the student, because I thought he was headed triumphantly toward a college degree and a career in mass communication.

     Jordan Nichols was charged with four counts of “distributing a controlled substance near a school.” That’s considered a felony charge. Distributing means allegedly selling. A controlled substance, in this case, means marijuana, of up to 35 grams. Near a school mostly means the college.

     According to the police report, on four occasions during the month of January at the residence of Nichols and his roommate, bags of marijuana were purchased for $20 each. When Jordan was arrested, according to the police report, the police found two small bags of marijuana in the apartment.

      Jordan is innocent until proved guilty. But if convicted, the punishment could be 15 years to life in a Missouri prison. I remember thinking, when I read that information about prison term duration, “That’s crazy!” If you ask me, it’s outrageous for America to fill up the prisons with drug offenders when they should be going to rehab or a hospital, if that’s the need, or to a more reasonable punishment of community service time or a fine.

      Students in my classes know how I feel about illegal drugs. They know how I feel about marijuana. I see nothing good about it. Well, maybe if cancer patients find some kind of soothing relief with it, it’s fine with me. Otherwise, I see little benefit. It makes people lazy. It can make people depressed. It’s bad for the lungs. It kills brain cells. It’s been linked with triggering a psychosis, such as schizophrenia. And an arrest, let alone charges and conviction, can follow a person for a long time by way of the Internet and “Googling.” A person who had served time in prison told me that it was difficult finding a job afterward. If an employer has a choice between someone with a criminal record and someone who doesn’t have one, who do you think he’s likely to hire? So many disadvantages and so few advantages. And yet, still, college students seem to laugh it off, as though my warnings are silly.

     Though I am no saint, I can truthfully say that I have never used illegal drugs. Not marijuana. Not any illegal drug. Not ever. I don’t even like to use legal drugs, partly because my family history is such that our systems seem to react differently than others do. So, even a legal drug can be dangerous. Most addictions nowadays are related to legal prescriptions.

     Some students always look at me like I am lying about never having used marijuana. They know I am politically and socially liberal. But, with my friends or acquaintances who partook in drugs back in the days of my life as a college student, it never seemed to make much difference what their political persuasion was. Some were liberal, some were conservative. It isn’t a political thing. More likely, it is a peer pressure thing.

     From the reaction of some students in classes over the years, it makes me think that marijuana is so prevalent in availability as well as in societal and popular culture acceptability that there is an expectation for its use. I had a roommate in college who spent many of his evenings puffing on marijuana and he lasted one semester in college. I just never felt the pressure or desire to join in. That semester, I got a lot of studying done at the library.  

     Some people tell their students that “everyone was doing it back then, in the 1960s and 1970s.” I tell my students that when someone says “everyone was doing it,” that’s an overstatement and probably code for their own experience with marijuana—probably they were doing it and thus they thought or witnessed seemingly everyone else doing it, too. Then it became easier to justify personal use. It probably is true, though, that many people have had that experience. If a majority has done it, it does seem bewildering to maintain its criminality and to send some to jail.

     If many seem to be doing something, a person can still choose to be different, can be independently individual, can just choose to avoid what’s illegal or unwise or unhealthy. It can be done. And it can be done concerning alcohol or hazing or other activities as well.

     While my personal attitude about drugs is lukewarm, what alarms and aggravates me is the threat of prison time as punishment within the legal system. I am all for putting violent criminals away from society. But drug crimes are mostly non-violent activities.

      Certainly, one of the worst problems about illegal drugs in our society today is that they cost so much in terms of their destructive powers, especially for college students with bright futures. Prisons steal time. Prisons don’t make people better. Prisons have the greater potential of making people worse.

     Especially relating to drug crimes, punishment within our justice system needs great reform, but no one seems to care, with probably the recent exception of Libertarian presidential candidate Ron Paul. He, too, knows that the American prison population, mainly because of drugs or alcohol, is the largest in the world…and that’s appalling, unnecessary, and regressive.

     My brother, who earned his law degree many decades ago, told me that one of his law professors described the legal system as “a long garden hose with a lot of leaks.” The law professor said there were lots of criminal acts committed, but some don’t get caught (or police look the other way), some who do get caught are not prosecuted through the discretion of the prosecutor (another “leak” in the hose), others are given a chance to plead guilty to a lesser charge, and the only ones who end up going to jail are those who are the “unlucky and unfortunate, the dispossessed, and ‘the other’,” as he called them.

     Due process often also exists only for those who can afford it.

     So, what can be done? Well, first of all, people who desire marijuana, as though nothing is wrong with it when it is still illegal, should be ashamed that they are more part of the problem than the solution. They are encouraging others to get into trouble. If they are for it as a product, then they first should seek its legal place through ballot initiatives and vote for judges who are wise on deliberation rather than politically “tough” on all crime. There is a real need for decriminalization within our justice system concerning marijuana. And reform, concerning the punishment for non-violent drug offenses, should involve education and medical attention or health remedies over prison time. The legal system needs to show wisdom and compassion.

     Bail has been posted and Jordan is out of jail, awaiting a court hearing on Feb. 29 in Marshall. Jordan has a lawyer. Every defendant needs a good lawyer.

     What I personally feel compelled to do is stand by my student Jordan, regardless of what happens, because I believe in him and his future. Based upon the student I knew from my classes and college moments, I have offered to write a letter of support for Jordan to any court or judge.

     So, that’s also why I went to the jail that day.

     I was there because I care about Jordan. I care about his potential, his education, his future. I wanted him to know I care. I wanted him to know that, even on difficult paths that can come in all kinds of forms, it doesn’t mean life is over; but it can mean that options change, either temporarily or long-term.

     I want the legal system to be fair. I want it to be modern and progressive. Even beyond what’s considered right or wrong in the eyes of the law, I also want the legal system to be reasonable and prudent when it comes to a young man’s life. If it mandates his path into a dimmer future of prison time, I think that’s a terrible mistake.

     When I left the jail facility for the parking lot on that visitation day, I appreciated returning to the outdoor sunshine of freedom.

     (Note: Information about anyone within the Missouri legal system can be found at Missouri Case.net at www.courts.mo.gov/casenet.)

David Roberts

About David Roberts

David Roberts has contributed 68 posts to The Delta.

David L. Roberts is an assistant professor of Mass Communication and adviser for the Delta projects. Born in Wyoming where he once started and produced a weekly newspaper, he has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Arizona and a master’s degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

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