September 23, 2018 Affirmation in Unexpected Places

 

The jury summons arrived recently in my mailbox. “You have been selected to serve on jury duty.” My first thought was, “Oh no! I don’t want to miss work.” The Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading has many exciting projects taking place, with more on the horizon. I didn’t want my absence to cause any loss of momentum.

Realizing the importance of the Sixth Amendment of the Bill of Rights, which guarantees every defendant a speedy trial with a fair jury, I didn’t entertain thoughts of trying to get out of jury duty. I would report as requested, but I started hoping that when I called in the day prior to my report date, I would be told I wasn’t needed. That was not the case. On my report date, I hoped for an early release. That didn’t happen. Then, I hoped I wouldn’t be selected to be part of a group called up to a courtroom. Nope. I was called as part of a group of 30 people to be questioned. A jury of seven would be selected. Okay, last chance. Maybe they wouldn’t want me? It turned out they did. I was selected as a jury member for a trial to be held later that week.

The good news? The trial was expected to last only one day. The surprising news? My time spent in the courthouse, instead of time away from work, gave me perspective and affirmation about the importance of the work we do.

The trial involved a defendant, a white man in his mid to late twenties, accused of burglary. For the purposes of this blog, I will call him Joseph. Without revealing too much of his personal information, I think it is safe to say Joseph has a transient lifestyle, a lack of education, and his outward appearance suggests a life of economic struggle. The prosecuting attorney was a young black woman and the public defender, a young white man, both of whom appeared to be shy of thirty.

Throughout the trial, I was struck by the contrast presented by these three individuals. Both attorneys were educated, accomplished, and on the brink of satisfying careers. Then there was Joseph, a defendant who gave the impression it was not his first time being prosecuted for a crime. What had derailed him from finding his role as a contributing member of our community? Was it a lack of education? Can he read? Is he a victim of the toxic stress of generational poverty? Is Substance Use Disorder part of his story? For the two attorneys, it seems like they have a limitless future in front of them. For Joseph, there seem to be enormous obstacles between his present situation and a life of hope and promise.

The evidence provided led the jury to a quick, unanimous decision convicting Joseph of guilt on all counts. Although I have a feeling of pride in our justice system, my overwhelming feeling at the end of the trial is sadness. Through my work with the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, I know the statistics. Almost 85% of teenagers in the juvenile justice system are functionally illiterate, and 7 out of 10 adult prisoners can’t read above a fourth-grade level.

By third grade, students must make the transition from learning to read to reading to learn. If they do not, they cannot do their coursework. And so, each year as the grade level demands go up, they fall further behind, becoming outsiders inside their classrooms. School becomes an increasing source of frustration, and they drop out.

Sitting in the courtroom as the verdict was read to Joseph, I felt our work with the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading was affirmed. We need to ensure the Josephs of the world have the tools they need to live the lives they desire. All of our children deserve a bright future. It will take our entire community — people, businesses, nonprofits, government, and the media — working together to prevent our children from falling through the cracks.

After the trial, the judge spoke with the members of the jury. He shared with us some of Joseph’s story that was not appropriate for us to know before our deliberations. As I suspected, he was not new to the justice system. In fact, not only were there many prior convictions, but he is also facing at least one more trial on unrelated charges. Joseph, through his incarcerations, is using a great deal of our tax dollars. As the mayor of Philadelphia, Jim Kenney, says, “Our focus needs to be on creating more taxpayers, and less tax takers.”

Reading on grade-level by the end of third grade is an important milestone in creating not only taxpayers but also successful adults and stronger communities.