Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Problem with Plaxico

I was reading a message board recently where half the posters were calling for the head of Plaxico Burress. Just like the Mayor of New York, they wanted to see the Giants receiver thrown in jail for discharging a weapon in a Manhattan nightclub and accidentally shooting himself in the thigh. Period. Let's forget that quaint notion that you're innocent until proven guilty or that the jails are overcrowded enough as it is -- with real criminals.

Nope. Let's make an example of a celebrity. Let's show we treat them the same way we treat the poor kid on the street.

Only he isn't being treated the same.

Because while it's true that there's a mandatory sentencing law in New York for carrying an unlicensed, loaded weapon the fact is that few people charged with the offense actually end up going to jail.

In fact, Jim Dwyer, writing in illuminating detail in his About New York column in the New York Times last week, makes this exact point. He quotes John M. Caher, a spokesman for the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services who says “Less than 10 percent of the people charged with second-degree criminal possession of a weapon, which carries the mandatory prison sentence, are ultimately convicted of that charge.”

In addition, there has been much speculation that the very fact that Burress is a celebrity will net him special treatment, but not how you think. It appears that prosecutors may not agree to a plea deal in this case, even if they would in other, similar cases -- because they want to send a message: if we throw Plaxico Burress into jail, we'll do it to anybody. Which is a load of horseshit because it sends more than just one message, like it's okay for the law to be applied to different people differently. Nice lesson in civics there, Mr. Mayor.

I'm not about to condone Plaxico's behavior. It was stupid, even if he had a reasonable concern for his safety, which I'm sure his lawyers will argue. Just four days earlier, another Giants receiver, was robbed at gunpoint. There is also a disturbing recent history of gun violence around the NFL -- a number of players have been severely injured, even killed by gun violence. Last year, Washington safety Sean Taylor was murdered during a home invasion. This September, Jacksonville lineman Richard Collier was shot 14 times by a man he reportedly had argued with, ending his football career at age 27. The shooting left him paralyzed below the waist and had to have his right leg amputated above the knee.

While his history is not as checkered as Collier's (he had substance abuse problems and at least one DUI arrest -- and so far none of that history has appeared to play a roll in the shooting), Plaxico's past is troubling, there's no doubt about that.

The guy clearly needs help, but he's no Terrell Owens. Not even close. What he did last year, showing up every Sunday and playing like a warrior despite ankle and knee injuries that would require offseason surgery, earned the respect of every man in his locker room. It also earned him a contract extension though I think the Giants took too damn long to ink that deal and as a result, Burress skipped most of training camp. How much this led to his problems (on and off the field) this season is uncertain.

On a team of mostly model citizens, he's unfortunately stood out this season. He is a very complicated man -- extremely bright, yet very emotional and extremely, painfully private. His teammates describe him as likable but aloof and distant. And while he's been accused in the past of not leaving it all on the field every Sunday, he has showed up for the Giants when counted upon. It's a cliche, I know, but if anything, his behavior this season feels like a classic call for help.

Does that make him a victim? No. Does it make what he did any less wrong? Of course, not. Should he go to jail? Hell, no.

I think he should be treated like every other first offender in this sort of gun case, not made an example of because he's a public figure. Fine him. Get him some counseling and take away his license to carry a weapon. And let's not pretend he murdered anybody.

Yeah, he certainly could have hurt someone and he certainly should have known better. But let's not turn his stupidity into a referendum on gun control. If New York City or any other place for that matter wanted to get guns off the street, they could do it. That's another argument altogether.

You gotta think Burress has finally received his wake-up call. You would hope anyway. We don't need to lock him up to teach him that lesson -- that's not what jail is for anyway. It's to put away people who are a danger to society.

Now for my second sermon in two days: this is the problem with mandatory jail sentences. For one, they're too rigid and don't take into account what almost always are extenuating circumstances. Second they rely far too much on an idea long ago debunked -- that harsh prison sentences are a major crime deterrent. Third it ignores the fact that sending minor offenders to prison exposes them to more violent offenders and likely influences them negatively, as opposed to "scaring them straight." Fourth, mandatory sentences haven't proven to significantly curtail violent crime and in some cases, makes dangerous criminals more dangerous. All they do is put an insufficient Band Aid on the issue of chronic recidivism, which is the real problem. Full-court handling of suspects who commit lessor crimes -- including psychiatric counseling and rehabilitation support -- works for most first-time offenders (those who aren't sociopaths or severely mentally ill and even some studies have shown it can work with a percentage of that population too) by preventing them from turning into violent criminal in the first place. If we really wanted to make a difference in violent crime, we'd stop locking everybody up and start spending time, money and resources on prevention and rehab of early offenders. Get them when they still have something to live for. Don't get me started. Fuck.

Okay, I'm done.

I just don't think there's any serious person who could put Plaxico Burress into the category of "danger to society." Everything he's done has been self-destructive pleas for help. At the moment, despite imposing a very severe penalty (one I think is warranted), the Giants seem to be willing (at the moment anyway) to ride this storm out to see if Plax can get his shit together.
It's possible that while his season is over for 2008, the Giants would welcome him back next year -- provided of course that he prove he's addressed his behavior problems.

This shouldn't be seen as coddling a rich superstar, but instead the pragmatic actions of an organization that wants to protect its investment while at the same time understanding there is a difference between a troublemaker and a guy who is clearly troubled.

I hope Plaxico can find his way through this. Even if he never plays football again, he's a bright, thoughtful man and he owes it to himself and his family to straighten his act out.

Better Days: Burress catches the game-winning touchdown in Super Bowl XLII

1 comment:

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