Justice Tempered by Faith

A judge's tough-love approach pays off when a young mother reclaims her life.

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Posted in , Oct 18, 2012

Frances McGee-Cromartie

I entered through the back entrance of the courthouse, my head down as I walked the hall toward my chambers. It was one of those days when I kept asking the Lord, Are my decisions helping individuals? Am I making a difference in their lives?

My mind replayed yesterday’s criminal docket-call, three hours of organized chaos where defendants, representatives for the State of Ohio and defense attorneys argued, pleaded and bargained for the sentences they felt were just. Always a trying experience, but especially so the day before Thanksgiving.

Back home that morning I had laid out most of the ingredients I’d need for the special cake and three dozen rolls I’d promised to make for our multigenerational dinner at my sister’s house. But that was only a reminder of the defendants I had sentenced to spend their holidays incarcerated.

Being separated from their families and friends could spark them to change their lives. No doubt, then, I had an impact on folks’ lives. Yet was it a positive one?

I’m proud of the way I’ve served the citizens of Montgomery County, Ohio, as a common pleas court judge for the past five years. Each day brings different issues and challenges. When it comes to sentencing, I try to fashion a judgment that fits the unique circumstances of each defendant.

Many are decent people who’ve just made bad decisions. For that reason, I start each morning with a prayer: “Give me the wisdom to help the people I meet change their lives for the better.”

It’s rare, though, to find out if I succeeded. More often, I find out their fate only if they return, charged with another crime.

I entered my chambers and glanced at the papers spilling from my inbox. What a mess, I thought, picking up the calendar my bailiff Stella had prepared. I had several hearings scheduled for that Wednesday morning, but maybe I could clear my desk and sign some documents before we got started.

Outside my chamber, I heard Cheryl, my video reporter, and Moira, my staff attorney, discussing the day’s work, which defendants’ cases would go to trial and which ones would plead. Amid the friendly banter, another voice spoke up—familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it.

“May I speak to Judge McGee, please?”

“What’s your name and what is this regarding?” I heard my video reporter ask the woman.

“My name is Erica. I’ve got something important to tell her.”

Erica. Now I knew who it was. A young defendant I’d met during my early days as a judge. She’d entered the courtroom with her face scrunched into a frown, her hair wild and unkempt, with an attitude to match.

On the day of her sentencing, I received a written case history. Dropped out of high school. Trouble with drugs since her early teens. A mother to a young girl and on public assistance. She was pleading guilty to yet another possession charge.

I struggled with the sentence to give Erica. Based on what I had read, prison time didn’t seem appropriate. Look at her; try to see the face of God, I thought. “I’m going to leave you in the community. I’m giving you probation,” I said.

She seemed pleased with that. But her smile quickly faded when she heard the three additional sanctions.

First, she was to return in 90 days to show that she was serious about being a law-abiding citizen. Second, she was to write a two-page report about her goals and objectives for the next five years. Third, she was to get her General Equivalency Diploma, her GED.

“Of all the sanctions, I will look most strongly at the last two,” I told her. “If these conditions are not met, I’ll have no choice but to send you to jail.” Erica scowled so fiercely that it looked like her two eyebrows had become one. “But if you work hard and set a good example for your daughter, I know you can do anything you set your mind to.”

“Your honor,” her attorney told me afterward, “you ask too much of our clients. For them, long-range planning is figuring out what to eat for dinner.”

“My decision is final,” I said. And I meant it.

Within weeks, I received Erica’s two-page report. Amid the misspelled words, she told me that she dreamed of owning two businesses—a catering company and a beauty salon. She wanted her daughter to graduate from high school and go to college. She wanted to help her family do better in life than she had.

“Simply reaching the end of the day is hard,” she wrote. “I’m not sure how I made it this far.” It was heartbreaking but honest.

The last time I’d seen Erica, at her 90-day hearing, I almost didn’t recognize her. Gone was the scowl that hid her beautiful almond eyes. She was properly groomed with her hair cut into an attractive style. Her probation officer issued a glowing report.

“I like my GED classes,” Erica said. “Everyone wants to help and my teachers make things easy to understand. I still don’t get math, though.”

Inwardly I smiled. I’d struggled with math in school too. Outwardly, I remained stern and reminded her that the GED was a requirement.

A year and a half later, her probation officer thought she was doing well enough to recommend ending her probation early. However, I nixed the idea. She hadn’t passed the math portion of her GED yet.

Then the economy tanked. The state had to make cutbacks—and the money required for Erica’s training and probation monitoring was no longer there. With great reluctance, I finally agreed to terminate her probation.

Periodically, I heard from people who knew Erica. I learned that she was living a positive life, although she still hadn’t gotten her GED. That worried me. Then I heard nothing.

Now Cheryl ushered Erica into my chambers. She looked radiant. “Do you remember me?” she asked hesitantly.

“Of course I remember,” I said. “But I almost didn’t recognize you.”

“Judge,” she began, “I have something to tell you...I got my GED!”

The squeal that I heard came from my own mouth. I didn’t realize I could make a sound like that. A very unjudgelike thing, I suppose. Tears stung the back of my eyelids as I rushed around my desk to give her a hug. “Oh, Erica, I’m so proud of you,” I said. “Tell me all about it!”

“It was really hard,” she began. “But I didn’t give up. I just kept trying and trying until I finally passed. I’m the very first person in my family to get a diploma! Everyone comes to me now with questions or for advice. And my daughter saw how hard I worked in my studies and got serious about her classes. She’s going to graduate from high school next year. Can you believe it? We’re going to go to college together!”

“I’m so glad you came and shared that information with me today,” I said. “What made you stick with it after your probation was over?”

Erica looked hard at me. “Because you said if I worked hard, I could do anything,” she said. “I wanted my daughter to be proud of me.”

Give me the wisdom.... In Erica’s case, it seemed that God had.

“I gotta go,” Erica said. “Someone I know is in court today and I want to be there for her. I want her to know that if I can make it, she can too.”

With a wave of her hand, she rushed out of my office. I sat at my desk. In front of me was a day’s worth of motions to decide and cases to review. A job to do. And I still had a cake and three dozen rolls to bake waiting for me at home, don’t forget.

But now it didn’t seem like such a heavy workload. Thanksgiving had arrived early.

 

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