Oh dear, I sighed and groaned upon hearing about the latest of the seemingly daily reports of killings by individuals who are alienated, angered or mentally ill. As I understand it, most, if not all, of the perpetrators were recognizable as troubled individuals.
Last month 22-year-old Grant Taylor deliberately drove his pickup into and killed Lansing fireman Dennis Rodeman. Dennis and fellow firemen were standing in the road collecting money for muscular dystrophy research.
Grant was angry about the slowed traffic, exchanged words with Rodeman and threw an apple core at him. Then he turned his truck around and killed him with it.
In high school, Taylor was a good student, an athlete and was described as a quiet, intelligent leader. In his second year of college he dropped out and moved back home. Two years ago his mother petitioned the probate court to have him involuntarily hospitalized for standing outside shirtless in freezing temperatures. He angrily threw his cellphone away to rid himself of the past.
Four psychiatrists diagnosed him with paranoid schizophrenia, which typically starts at his age. He was briefly hospitalized. He wasn’t adequately treated and protected from his hallucinations. And we weren’t protected from him.
A year later his mother again petitioned for his hospitalization. He had become more withdrawn, stared at the ceiling and feared he was going to be killed. Again, after a short hospital stay, he was released, untreated, loose in the community. Those failures cost fireman Rodeman his life. It cost the Lansing Fire Department one of its most popular members. His new wife lost her husband. And their unborn child will never know its father.
Grant Taylor’s critical problems were well known by every relevant agency in the community. His mother was unable to marshal the help we all needed for him. Our collective guilt is greater than his.
He will be prosecuted for murder. Since his victim was a public defender, chances are he’ll be sentenced to life in prison without parole: Tormented the rest of his life by his demons.
In the warehouse prison he’ll be one of the third of all convicts who are incompetent, mentally ill and inadequately treated. Untold others are incarcerated for non-violent offenses and unable to afford competent trial defense or mount appeals.Those in the know say culpability matters less than money when it comes to criminal defense. Those without capital get punishment.
Angry and afraid, unreflected vengeance is the prevailing public sentiment. Not long ago the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that sentencing juveniles to life without parole is unconstitutional.
Many states, including Michigan and its Attorney General Bill Schuette, will not apply the ruling retroactively. He says promises of revenge made to victims’ families at sentencing will be honored. If he gets his way, the more than 200 Michigan prisoners sentenced as juveniles will have to endure cruel and unusual punishment until they die in prison.
Humane America would be a radically different place. Everyone would have access to a safe place to live and sufficient food to eat. Everyone would have access to appropriate health care, free education and opportunities for upward socioeconomic mobility. And every defendant in criminal proceedings would have access to competent representation.
Humanizing America can be done via our political system. It will be simple and difficult. Tax policy would be made more fair. And methods of budgeting would be redesigned so states and local governments receive funds to maintain their infrastructure and serve citizens’ humane needs.
The impetus for these fundamental changes will have to come from ordinary folks. Most have a degree of trust in local governments. The ballot box is available to address issues. And local, state and national judiciary are also available to seek relief.
Gridlocked Congress is not up to the task. Republicans are determined to implement a version of the morally bankrupt, trickle-down economic theory so the rich get richer and (maybe) create jobs. Democrats are wont to develop complex, controversial broad social programs like Obamacare that will take decades to accomplish its goals. Congress is too preoccupied with squabbling to help us today.
Some will scoff at my naive proposal. But our ancestors trusted their courage and put their lives on the line in the Revolutionary War. And they showed incredible foresight in drafting our Constitution. Now it’s our time to muster the vision and courage to begin making the America they gave us a more humane place to live.