When Johnny Cash died I went right out and bought a CD of his music. It carries the subtitle, “A Concert Behind Prison Walls.”

Of course, it includes his famous “Folsom Prison Blues.” But item No. 3 on the disc is the lesser known ballad called “Jacob Green.”

Johnny introduces it with these words: “I’ve learned one thing, that when a man is at rock bottom, when there is no place else he can go except up, that the only thing that is really important in the world to him is that somebody, somewhere cares.”

The song tells the true story of a boy who was arrested for possession one night and prior to being dumped into the holding cell was stripped and shaved by the jailhouse crew. Early the next morning, before he could be brought to arraignment, young Jacob Green hanged himself in shame and despair.

The chorus is haunting: “It happened yesterday and if you turn your head away … it could be somebody that you love that gets done like Jacob Green got done.”

Songs and stories like this come to mind when I contemplate the recent directive of the attorney general of the United States.  He sent orders to federal attorneys throughout the land that similar crimes should have similar charges and that convicted felons should receive the maximum penalties.

“Just as the charges a defendant faces should not depend upon the particular prosecutor handling the case,” John Ashcroft writes, “so too the sentence a defendant receives should not depend upon which particular judge presides over the case.”

The first rule is about fairness. “It is important that when the law is broken in Milwaukee, it’s attended by the same consequences as when it’s broken in Denver,” he explains.

He could have illustrated his point with cases in west Kentucky and North Dakota. Recent accidents in each place featured a driver who ignored a stop sign, hit a vehicle and killed another driver. In Kentucky, the driver was charged with murder; in North Dakota, with manslaughter.

What is the difference?

The driver in Kentucky is a young black male with no criminal or traffic record. Prosecutor, judge and jury were all white. He was found guilty.

The driver in Dakota was the former governor of the state, now a U.S. representative in Washington. He has a long history of traffic violations. A trial date has not been set.

While these two cases are state procedures and therefore do not involve federal attorneys, they do illustrate why our judicial system needs an infusion of fairness. If Ashcroft’s first rule helps address such inequity it is a good thing.

But his second is not about fairness, it is about meanness.

In his memo, Ashcroft orders all attorneys general to charge defendants with maximum crimes and seek maximum penalties. It denigrates judges who give lenient sentences and directs prosecutors to avoid plea bargains that allow criminals to serve less time than possible.

This harsh attitude toward those convicted of crimes fails to acknowledge the role of race, poverty, prejudice, power and mental illness in judicial proceedings.

Already the United States, among all nations in the Free World, has the largest percentage of its population either incarcerated, probated or paroled. Apparently, Ashcroft wants to make sure we do not surrender this distinction to some country whose prosecutors and judges are as quick to “love mercy” as they are to “do justice.” (See Micah 6:8.)

I for one am just glad these new rules were not in effect in the spring of 2001.

The federal judge who sentenced my son had options: from 92 months to 115 months. After rejecting our plea for “diminished capacity” he tempered his justice with the right amount of mercy and issued his order for the minimum.

Seven-plus years is a long time for a father to wait for a son or a young man to wait for freedom.
But seven years is shorter than 10, and the difference between them will allow the two of us more than 800 days to kick back, put on some Johnny Cash, and meditate on the difference between meanness and mercy.

Dwight Moody is dean of the chapel at Georgetown College in Georgetown, Ky.

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