I always have more to share after I write a column, and today is no different. There are more things you should know about David Gordon and about the whole question of what we — this state, this country — do about teenagers who kill. 

Clearly, there needs to be punishment for the taking of another life. But I just don’t believe a teenager spending decades in an adult prison is appropriate or moral, nor do growing numbers of people who take time to think about this. I’ve raised these questions before: Is the singular purpose of prison to punish or should the point be to change lives, especially young ones? Are we really ready to say that a 17-year-old boy is a lost cause, or do we want a system that finds in him the potential to be a better man? Would we be better off with a prison system that was more merciful and therapeutic?

Here’s what his attorneys and the state told me about David Gordon, things I never heard at his sentencing 34 years ago for the “anger murder” of Benny Sidney:

Gordon was born to a teenager and he did not see his father after the age of four. He lived with his mother and maternal grandmother in a home where domestic violence was present. Gordon often went unsupervised for days or weeks at a time and was left in the care of strangers. … Given his unstable home environment, Gordon sought validation and support from other troubled men and boys in his neighborhood.Gordon’s defense counsel has stated that, at the age of 16, Gordon could in no way appreciate the gravity and severity of his actions. He has said that, at the time of the offense, he did not consider the impact his reckless actions could have on the victim’s loved ones. Reflecting back on his younger self, Gordon stated ‘that person seems like a total stranger to me… I am ashamed of my stupid and naïve actions.’ Gordon has reflected on his tumultuous childhood and how his environment shaped the person he was at 16 when he killed Benjamin Sidney and takes full responsibility for his actions.After a turbulent start to his incarceration, as is typical for juveniles, Gordon has become a ‘model inmate’ over time. Gordon regularly attended church services at [the Western Correctional Institution], is a role model and ‘uncle figure’ to many younger inmates, and is highly respected by correctional staff. … Gordon earned his GED in 1994, after having only attained an 8th grade education prior to incarceration. He has been housed on the Honor Tier since approximately 2007, which requires him to be infraction-free for at least two years, have his GED and maintain employment. The Honor Tier is reserved for exceptional inmates. Gordon also maintains steady employment and was successful as a laundry worker at the facility from 2007 until he was reassigned to the plumbing vocational workshop in 2019 on recommendation. Prior to the plumbing vocational workshop suspension in March 2020 due to the pandemic, Gordon had completed all written tests with an average of 93.5%.

It sounds like Gordon has a good arrangement for support when he gets out of prison. He’ll need it. Maybe we could help him find a job as a plumber’s apprentice.

Here’s what Marilyn Mosby, the Baltimore State’s Attorney, had to say about this case: “Having served 34 years in prison, Mr. Gordon is a different man than he was as a child who made an impulsive decision that changed the course of his life and Mr. Sidney’s life forever. He’s now served his time, he’s taken accountability for his actions, is remorseful and has availed himself of every opportunity to rehabilitate himself. I’m grateful that our criminal justice system has finally recognized the compassionate need for second chances.”

I go back to that question: Was society served by keeping David Gordon locked up for 34 years in adult prisons (the old House of Corrections and WCI)? Could we have done more to exact punishment (the loss of freedom) while correcting the early failures of his life? 

I think we could have done better had we such a system — such a culture of corrections — in place. If you accept that recidivism rates should be how we measure a system’s effectiveness, then it follows that prisons should be about changing lives. And that means adopting a more holistic and humane approach — making detailed assessments of all inmates and providing whatever services they need, over the course of their sentence, so that they leave better than when they arrived. It’s critical that we do this with greater urgency and diligence at the juvenile level, as the Baltimore County case of Dawnta Harris and the death of Officer Caprio demonstrated.

Your thoughts on this are welcome.

Meanwhile, I’m still trying to get a grasp on time, and not just the years I’ve spent writing about the many problems of society and Baltimore. I’m thinking of the years David Gordon spent in prison: From his angry adolescence — he was 16 when he killed Benny Sidney — to his 51st year, he missed what most of us experienced between high school and middle age, and that covers a lot of ground. We — this state, this country — certainly exacted more than enough punishment from David Gordon for his angry adolescent crime. It sounds like he made every effort to change his life behind the walls, and that he was a better person years ago, about halfway through the sentence he ultimately served. 

We can do better. 

The thinking on this is slowly changing; the law that made possible Gordon’s appeal to Judge Taylor in Baltimore is evidence of that. 

I have been writing a column in this city for 44 years and I often have the dismal thought that nothing has changed. In fact, some things have. My own thinking about crime and punishment has evolved over time, and the criminal justice reforms already enacted are paving the way to a more enlightened future. And I’m of two minds about the future — on one hand, I’m in no rush to get there; on the other hand, it seems like it’s taking forever.

One thought on “On time, crime and punishment: More on the David Gordon case and juvenile justice

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