Henry David Thoreau famously said that if a government imprisons people unjustly, the place for a just man is in prison.
So you figure if a government imprisons people justly, the place for an unjust man is also in prison.
Either way, it’s hard to argue that Kwame Kilpatrick isn’t where he belongs.
Since the former mayor of Detroit was led away in handcuffs this past week, some people have argued a cell is the wrong form of justice.
“He’s not a violent criminal,” some insist. Or, “He’s not a threat to society.” I even had one of his lawyers tell me that putting Kilpatrick behind bars, in an overcrowded prison system, would likely mean another criminal would “have to be moved out” and that criminal could be violent, so it could actually endanger society.
(That lawyer, by the way, has resigned from the case and now will work for a religious television network. I doubt the Lord will be swayed by such logic.)
Look, if not being violent kept you out of jail, there would never be a white-collar criminal behind bars. Bernie Madoff would be home, despite the fortunes he stole or the lives he ruined.
And if not being a threat to society was an adequate argument, then why imprison deadbeat dads or feeble former Nazis? Who are they going to hurt today? It’s not about the money
Still my favorite argument is this: “How is Kwame going to pay the city all he owes if he’s behind bars?”
Answer: He isn’t.
Just like he wasn’t when he was out.
Kilpatrick sits in prison today because he used countless hours in our judicial system squirming out of paying his debt and then squirming out of revealing his assets.
It was Kwame who came forth and said he had only $6 a month to pay. It was Kwame who asked for reduced terms. It was Kwame who fudged about a $240,000 loan he had received. And it was Kwame who said he didn’t even know whether his wife worked, an idea so laughable it barely warranted a headshake.
If you believe the mountain of evidence, Kilpatrick had hundreds of thousands of dollars that he had no intention of using toward repaying Detroit. To the city, he was broke. In Texas, he had a big house and a fancy car and bought gifts for his wife. It’s as if he felt entitled to be wealthy there, while playing the pauper around here.
This isn’t just hypocrisy. At some point, it becomes illegal. Like when you lie on the stand. That’s called perjury. Or when you don’t do what you agreed to in your plea bargain. That’s called violating probation.
And when things become illegal, you can be tried and convicted. And guess what comes next?
They lock you up.
Is this really news to a lawyer? The right way to react
Let’s be clear. Despite the gasps at his maximum sentence of five years, Kwame likely will not serve much more than one year. Then he will be out, presumably saying what he said the last time: that all he wants to do is be with his wife and kids.
If those things were so precious, he should have been protecting them all along. You know how you do that? Avoid incarceration.
You move into a humble apartment. You drive a used car. If someone offers you a deal – heck, if someone wants to give you a house – you say no thanks, I need to behave a certain way to stay out of prison.
You tell your wife you will buy her gifts later – after you’ve paid off your debt. You make your records totally transparent. You offer every check, every tax document. You don’t argue over what’s fair, because you want to stay out of jail and be with your family, right?
It’s simple. Play it clean, you’re a free man. Kwame didn’t, so he isn’t. As for the 99 days he already served – and critics who say he doesn’t deserve more time? First, that was a plea deal Kilpatrick took; it could have been more.
Secondly, if you want to count days, count these: In August 2007, he testified that he didn’t have an affair with Christine Beatty. In October 2007, he OK’d an $8.4-million payoff to cops he had fired to cover his behind. Yet he didn’t confess any guilt until September 2008.
That’s a full year of freedom, mayor status, money, big house, while he knew full well he had committed a crime. How about we count that as time he “didn’t deserve”?
Had Kwame followed the deal he took, we wouldn’t be talking about him today. And the truth is, we won’t be talking about him in a few weeks. This is not a scar that haunts the city – only for the few days he’s a headline.
The rest of the time, he’s all he should be: an example of what happens when you break the law once, cut a deal and start messing with it again.
Where else but behind bars makes sense?
Contact MITCH ALBOM: 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).