Shawn collaborated with NMAG member Sophie to share her experience with the Grand Traverse County jail and legal system.
Three years ago, Shawn’s 24-year-old son, Gabe, was arrested on child pornography charges. He had pictures on his phone of two different adolescent boys; he did not share the pictures nor did he physically assault anyone. However, possession of the pictures was enough to earn Gabe a 15-year sentence in a federal prison, which he is now in jail waiting to serve. Some might call this justice. But when taking a step back and looking at the whole picture, Shawn believes that the situation has resulted in anything but justice. Before Gabe’s arrest, his mother, Shawn, was likely a person who agrees that a lengthy prison sentence is justified for possession of child pornography. But now that she has come to know our criminal legal system so much better, she is unconvinced that such a long sentence is the appropriate response.
Like any mother, Shawn wants her son to heal and learn from what he did. After he was arrested, Gabe had a psychological evaluation and started seeing a local counselor. His family learned that he had been hiding his own experiences of being sexually assaulted, twice as a child and once in college, for years. While not an excuse, it is well-known that people who have been harmed are more likely to commit harm themselves, particularly when it comes to sexual abuse. Shawn and Gabe both agree that he must be held accountable for his actions. A fundamental aspect of accountability, or taking responsibility for one’s actions, is the process of learning from that action so that it will not be repeated. If Gabe had not seen a counselor, he and his family would not have learned about his own history of sexual abuse. Although he and his parents are doing everything they can to ensure that he continues his treatment with his counselor, it has not been easy. It makes them wonder if our criminal legal system really wants to help hold people accountable, or does it just want to punish?
Grand Traverse County Prosecutor, Noelle Moeggenberg, did everything in her power to ensure Gabe would go to federal prison for fifteen years for possessing illegal pictures on his phone. She characterized him as a monster that needed to be locked away, completely disregarding the psychological evaluation, provided by an expert in the field of sexual abuse, that stated Gabe needed treatment in order to be held accountable, not incapacitation via lengthy incarceration. Faced with their son’s actions, and then learning about his own experience with abuse, coupled with the vindictive nature of the GT County prosecutor intent on eliminating all of Gabe’s humanity, Shawn and her husband were emotionally and psychologically drained.
And yet, in addition to the prosecutor, the GT County Jail seemed to want to do everything they could to make Shawn’s family’s circumstances even harder. Shawn shared that when she and her husband would visit Gabe, they were forced to sit in the waiting room for extended periods of time while they watched staff go in and out of the gate that kept them from their son, wondering why the jail staff had time to do everything else but let them into the visitor room. Almost every time they went to visit, Shawn stated most of the staff at the jail treated her and her husband as if they, too, had committed a crime and were now no longer ‘good citizens’, but ‘criminals’. The only thing she and her husband are guilty of is wanting to visit with their son and help him to heal, like every other person that visits a loved one who is incarcerated. The least the jail staff could do, it seems to Shawn, is treat people with dignity and respect, but that’s not the GT County Jail’s forte.
Shawn is now outspoken about her experience with the criminal legal system; she wants people to know that it does not serve justice. Instead, it only assists in further fragmenting communities. The system uses a shallow version of accountability to punish and incapacitate people who have harmed others, rather than looking at the root causes of why the harm happened in the first place, which requires looking at individual circumstances as well as a larger social context – what many of us would call ‘looking at the whole picture’. Shawn volunteers with the ACLU Smart Justice campaign to encourage voters to educate themselves on prosecutors running for office in their counties. She also shares her story in the hopes that people will begin to understand why it’s important to elect a prosecutor that is truly, rather than superficially, focused on accountability and healing communities. Given that sheriffs are also elected officials that often work closely with prosecutors, holding our jail administration to the same standard is a good place to start.