Editor’s Note: The following letter to The Bloomington Alternative is being published here in its entirety with the permission of its author.
Is the only way to receive justice in Monroe County Indiana to be of a financial status to be able to afford to buy it? I thought that perhaps your experience in covering the news and events in Bloomington may have given you the insight to be able to help me answer this question.
I have experienced being homeless and been impoverished here in Bloomington firsthand in the past, and although there are a number of compassionate individuals and organizations here in B-town that are very helpful to those experiencing poverty, I have found local politics and the local judicial system to be less than friendly and in most cases prejudiced against those individuals living below the poverty level.
"Bloomington used to be a beautiful little town that was known for its open-mindedness and open heart."
By no means am I implying that this is a problem that exists only here in Bloomington. On the contrary, this is the same view and attitude held by most of western society, if not societies worldwide. However, Bloomington used to be a beautiful little town that was known for its open-mindedness and open heart, full of quaint, locally owned shops and restaurants and renowned for the eclectic street performers and artists. It was a great place to be.
Unfortunately, over the past several years as more and more big, outside corporate interests moved in and began to develop, all to the cheers and praise of local officials and politicians, I have seen locally owned businesses being pushed out and local law enforcement cracking down on street people like the Gestapo (unless you were a wealthy IU student from a well-to-do family).
I watched as the small, locally owned Ladyman’s restaurant was forced to close its doors in order to make room for a corporate interest, then only to have the corporation back out completely. I miss that small mom-and-pop place. They had great food at a reasonable price and were always friendly.
"I have experienced being homeless and been impoverished here in Bloomington firsthand in the past."
I was, and still am, appalled to see the Von Lee Theater turned into a corporate, franchised noodle shop. Recently I spoke to the owner of the Dharma Emporium as he packed up the last of his stock to shut his doors after years of doing business in downtown Bloomington.
Every weekend I see mobs of drunken, loud and often violent fraternity students lay waste to the downtown Bloomington area, smashing bottles, discarding those hideous red plastic cups everywhere, verbally and often physically assaulting people passing by, openly urinating and vomiting on the sidewalks and then jumping into their sports cars and SUVs as the local police turn their heads and avert their eyes.
Then, I also see impoverished and/or homeless men and women being arrested for public intoxication when they had done nothing more than sit on a brick wall in a public space or sleep beneath the shade of a tree in a public park. I am by no means saying that there are not poor and homeless people who get drunk and belligerent or who harass people. I know that there are, and for those individuals who are a threat to others or a common nuisance, I believe that they should have to face the legal ramification of their actions.
I just think that the same rules of justice should apply to everyone, regardless of their social status or financial income.
I have been incarcerated in the Monroe County Jail and have seen first-hand the different forms of justice being dealt out to individuals based upon their social and economic status. I found myself homeless in Bloomington back in January of 2006.
"I have found local politics and the local judicial system to be less than friendly and in most cases prejudiced against those individuals living below the poverty level."
While putting in applications for employment, I found a woman’s wallet outside a store on the east side of Bloomington, as was shown by the surveillance video at the time of the incident. Although I did turn the wallet in without attempting to use any of the credit cards or checks that were contained in said wallet, due to the desperate circumstances that I was in at the time I made the wrong decision to remove the $17 and some odd change from the wallet. This may seem like I am trying to justify what I did, and, in a way, I guess I am. Or, rather, I am attempting to explain the desperate circumstances that I found myself in at that time that would cause me to make such a terrible mistake.
As a result of my actions, I was later arrested and charged with Theft, Class D Felony. At that time I served three months. I understand that the case was not winnable as far as me being not guilty of removing and keeping the $17 and some odd change. After all, I did freely write and sign a statement attesting to and admitting to keeping the small amount of money.
I recognized that it was a less than moral thing to do in keeping the $17 and some odd change and stated my regret and remorse for doing so. I also explained the extenuating circumstances of my being displaced and hungry at the time that had a part in my making such an error in judgment.
The owner of the wallet was very pleased to have her wallet returned and was happy to find out that none of her checks or credit cards had been touched. She even went so far as to state that she would have given a reward amounting to more than what money was missing. Needless to say, she did not want to press charges.
The Monroe County Prosecutor’s Office did pick up and press charges, however. I had hoped at the time that my court-appointed public defender would have a little understanding and could work on my behalf to at least try to plea bargain my case down to a less severe charge, taking into account that it was obvious by witness statements and by the security video that I had not stolen the actual wallet but rather I had found it, and that although I acted less than morally by removing the $17 and odd change from the wallet, I did go on to turn the wallet in, thinking that it would eventually be returned to its rightful owner. This does not mean that what I did was in any way acceptable.
"I was, and still am, appalled to see the Von Lee Theater turned into a corporate, franchised noodle shop."
During the time I was incarcerated I witnessed several incidents where a college student would be brought in drunk and disorderly and after making a couple of phone calls would be released before even leaving the holding tank. I saw individuals with drug charges, multiple DUIs and even one who was caught breaking into a home be released in a matter of hours.
It was no coincidence that every one of these cases involved an offender who was either an IU student or from a wealthy family who could pay the high bond. After sitting in the Monroe County Jail for a number of months it became obvious to me that I, as an impoverished, homeless man, was not going to receive any plea bargains or assistance in this matter.
When I asked my public defender if he would at least enter a plea bargain to have it reduced to a lesser charge considering the facts, he told me, “There is nothing that I can do for you.” I ended up pleading guilty to the Class D Felony and being sentenced to be imprisoned for three years, 2½ years suspended with six months served. I was put on probation, which was to have ended on October 5, 2008.
I thought then, as I still do now, that punishment was overly severe for the incident.
That is neither here nor there at this point in time, however. After being placed on probation, I violated it a number of times, not because of any new charges, but due to my substance abuse and addiction illness. I have a long history of mental illness, as the court is aware of, as I was evaluated and treated for such while in custody relating to this charge on more than one occasion.
"Every weekend I see mobs of drunken, loud and often violent fraternity students lay waste to the downtown Bloomington area."
I had always used drugs and alcohol as a form of self-medication. This was not a logical or healthy thing to do. With mental illness and addiction, one often makes unhealthy and illogical choices. Regardless of the reasons for my actions, as I do not want to even begin to try and justify my stupidity during the time that I was using substances, I violated the terms of my probation on four different occasions due to substance abuse. I was given conditions to meet as punishment for my actions, and I met those conditions.
I am glad to be able to say that I have been clean and sober since September of 2007. I have earned my GED, I have attended college as well, and I am building a small clientele locally as a Web site technician. I continue to seek treatment for my mental health issues, and I attend meetings and counseling for addiction issues as well.
Unfortunately, I also was diagnosed with hepatitis C and esophageal varices that I am sure were caused, in part, by my substance abuse in the past. I have been going through the lengthy process of obtaining treatment and medications for this disease.
On May 19, 2008, I was released from Richmond State Hospital, where I had undergone extensive inpatient treatment for both my mental illness and for my addiction illness. At that time my probation was extended for a year from that date, I think in part as a penalty for my violations, but, more so, I was led to believe it was to give me time to pay off all my court fees and fines, as well as my probation fees that totaled over $2,500, all of which, I am happy to report, have been paid in full.
From that date to present I have continued treatment for both my mental health issues and my addiction illness through Centerstone here in Bloomington. I have not drunk or used any substances at all during this time, nor do I ever plan on returning to that lifestyle. I have continued with my studies and education. I have been dealing with health issues. Most of all, I have not had so much as a traffic ticket since the 2006 incident that led to these charges.
My mother is experiencing health problems, and I have health problems of my own that I am dealing with and as a result I am moving to Loogootee to be closer to family and support. I have already made arrangements with Centerstone here and Samaritan Center in Loogootee to continue treatment for both my mental health and addiction issues.
"I just think that the same rules of justice should apply to everyone, regardless of their social status or financial income."
May 19th is a month away, and I was hoping that after three years of probation and nearly serving all of my suspended time as well as having paid all restitution, court cost, fines and fees, that I would be released from probation on the date that was agreed upon by the court in order that I can move on with my life in a positive manner. The verdict still looks a bit iffy, however.
I was fortunate enough to have the education, skills, and resources to register in classes and apply for the Pell Grant, as well as government loans. I was then able to take the financial resources that were intended for my education and pay off the extortion of the local government and judicial system.
My probation officer even said to me at one point, “Apply for all the government school loans that you can. It is how a lot of probationers are able to pay off their fines and fees.”
To me, that is not only shocking to hear, but sad that individuals who are below the poverty level and who are trying to better themselves with an education that they already can’t afford are forced to and encouraged to take the money that they obtain from the federal government to apply towards their education and pay off their court cost and probation fees.
So to speculate and answer my own question, I would have to say that justice can only be bought in Bloomington.
I apologize for taking up so much of your time with this lengthy rant of mine, I do not know what I hoped to accomplish in writing you other than to see if you could give me your informed opinion on the subject. Maybe you could do a piece on these issues there at the Alternative. I have always admired the edgy but honest way in which you have reported local news and events.
I know a lot of individuals on both sides of the issue on business and personal levels, if you ever wanted to get honest opinions from some of the longtime residents who have lived on the streets of Bloomington that would be hesitant to talk openly with strangers. I could introduce you to the not often seen sub-society that exists under the surface of Bloomington’s daily existence.
Keep up the great work on reporting the truth. It’s hard to find these days. Please let me know what your answer is. Is it true that the only way to obtain justice in Bloomington is to buy it? I thank you for your time and look forward to hearing from you.
Will Figment can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.