Wednesday, 23 December 2015

You're going to help us, Mr Anderson, whether you want to or not

This article should probably start in the same way as the Wikipedia page, whose first sentence I reproduce here in all its glory:

Cornealious Michael "Mike" Anderson III (born c. 1977) is an American convict whose case became nationally known when it was discovered (when he was due to be released) that, due to a clerical error, he was never imprisoned.
This was a big story in 2013 and 2014, although I never heard it at the time. But despite being self-evidently remarkable, I am of course less interested in the story itself and more in its chronicling by Wikipedia.

The gist is this: our man Cornealious, apparently the third of his great name, robbed a Burger King at gunpoint in August 1999, and in March 2000, he was sentenced to 13 years behind bars. He was released on bail during an appeal, but when this was rejected, the erstwhile Missouri Department of Corrections made no effort to return him to its custody, evidently burdened by the belief that he was already in it. Cornealious proceeded to live out a relatively happy and peaceable 13 years, which included getting married and founding his own company. In another standout sentence, Wikipedia states: "He registered his business, he voted, he renewed his driver's licence all using his full name and address."

No one noticed until 2013, when, as I like to imagine it, a bored guard turned up at an empty cell, looking at his clipboard and muttering if anyone had seen Anderson.

Wikipedia compares the case to that of Rene Lima-Marin, also convicted of armed robbery in 2000, this time in Colorado. Rene was sentenced to 98 years behind bars (justice!) but was erroneously released after a mere 8, without anyone - even Rene - realising that this was 9 decades early. "He became active in his church, married his former girlfriend, helped raise her son, and had another son with her." In a lovely, if suspicious, turn out for the books, Rene and Cornealious were represented by the same lawyer.

Now, the article spends more than 2,300 words describing these two cases, along with some of the "controversy" that they provoked in the media - this alone surely represents overzealous attention to detail for what is essentially a minor, if novel and attention-grabbing, moment in US legal history. But what I feel is really outstanding is the further 800 words dedicated to a section titled, drily, "Analysis".

The Analysis reads like an undergraduate law school assignment, comparing and contrasting several legal authorities (fully referenced, with citations for each publication) and their takes on what the whole kerfuffle says about the US justice system. Of particular note is the fact that Cornealious became - in the time he spent not in prison - by all accounts a fully reformed and upstanding member of society. As the judge finally put it in 2014: "Go home to your family, Mr. Anderson, and continue to be a good father, a good husband, a good taxpayer... Good luck to you."

This is to be contrasted - as the wiki-academics do at length - with the penal system as a whole, which has a famously poor record when it comes to reforming inmates. Consider the pros and cons weighed in this short, but thoughtful, passage:
Two thirds of people released from prison reoffend and often by committing a more serious crime. Instead of rehabilitating, prisons train people to be more violent.[29] According to Zeman, the failure to rehabilitate is a threat to society, but that it is a hard sell to convince those who focus on incarceration as punishment that incarceration should focus on rehabilitation.[29] According to Gilligan, allowing prisoners access to education and obtaining a college degree is the only program that has ever been shown effective in reducing recidivism.[29] However, such education programs are either viewed as too lenient or they are ineffectual in most prisons in the United States.[29]
Now, you or I might wonder what the minutiae of different expert opinions on modern recidivism has to do with a brief media sensation in 2013, but Wikipedia appears undaunted as it ploughs on for several lengthy paragraphs. This is why I love this website. The piece goes on to thoroughly explore the ideas of a man named Jayadev, who eventually makes Cornealious more or less a poster child for penal reform, citing the ludicrous costs of incarceration, the likelihood of re-offence and the problem of mandatory sentencing.

So if you ever thought Wikipedia was a simple one-stop shop for basic facts about stuff, remember Cornealious III. 

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