Don’t play race card frivolously

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 15, 2002

Criminals in Suffolk should be comforted to know that two of the city’s elected officials, in particular, really care about them. So much so that they wanted to continue paying their cover charge – (translation: $25 processing fee) – so they can rest a little easier during their incarceration in our Western Tidewater Regional Jail.

During the last General Assembly session, Virginia localities were given the option of passing the processing fees on to the inmates as a means to create additional revenue, instead of taxpayers continuing to pick up the tab. Suffolk was doing it to the tune of about $50,000 annually. But during last month’s council meeting, Suffolk became the last Hampton Roads locality to tell inmates to pay their own way.

But it wasn’t a 7-0 vote by a long shot.

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Vice Mayor Leroy Bennett and Councilman Curtis R. Milteer Sr. made emotionally laced pleas to their colleagues not to pass this cost on to our beloved criminals because they have enough to deal with. Milteer says that it would pose further hardship on the black community, which happens to be disproportionately affected. For Bennett, many of our disadvantaged offenders are already being imprisoned for failure to pay court costs, fines, and things like child support. The last thing they need is another fee forced on them.

Well in the words of 20/20’s John Stossel, &uot;Give me a break.&uot;

Unfortunately, there’s probably no one today who doesn’t directly or indirectly know someone who is or has been in prison, i.e. a family member, friend of a friend, associates, etc. People make mistakes sometimes and prison is one way to pay off their debt to society. But who’s being held accountable for their actions if our local government continues to assume costs it doesn’t have to? As it is, the federal bureaucracy on down has dumped millions into building prisons instead of funneling enough funds into viable community initiatives to deter crime and rehabilitate ex-offenders. And yes, despite how many programs are implemented, society will continue to manifest a criminal element.

Even so, as the state budget crisis continues to pervade the headlines, one would think the stewards of our local dollars would welcome any opportunity to cut costs. And any argument instead of the ones used by Milteer and Bennett to justify the city’s continued generosity would have been a better pill to swallow.

There’s a possibility that the basis provided by Milteer weakens existing and potentially substantiated cases in the city of the black community being unfairly targeted by local government action or the lack thereof.

Using race as a justification to avert passing this cost on to the people who put themselves where they are in the first place does not help the black community.

Instead, these arguments should be preserved for the real fights such as the blatant need for more safe, decent and affordable housing in areas of the city more densely populated by blacks, and continuing to ensure the fair distribution of city services to all races represented throughout the city.

And as for Bennett’s argument – any woman or man who needs a judge to order them to make financial provisions for their children’s needs does not merit your compassion, Mr. Vice Mayor. Your sentiments suggest that you really think they would run out and put that $25 toward their child’s next pair of sneakers. Considering that you have to get beyond the $5,000 benchmark to get thrown in jail for child support arrears, it’s fair to assume that $25 will not make much difference for these offenders.

Councilman Charles F. Brown put it

best when he said he’d rather see the city take the money and use it enhance the quality of life for the city’s citizens. And as Councilman Bobby Ralph stated, the move simply requires those who created the cost in the first place to pay it.

The majority vote prevails and it appears the city has closed its checkbook – at least on this issue anyway.

– Luefras Robinson

Luefras Robinson is a resident of Suffolk, and a staff writer for the Suffolk News-Herald.