Today our nineteen-year-old son was sentenced in a district courtroom in a neighboring county seat town. At his request, I was present. It was an awkward role for me to have, not because I have never been in court with errant children (I wish I could say that, but I can't), but because his sentencing was as a result of his breaking and entering the church building where I am pastor. To complicate roles even further, Mike is not just my law-breaking son, but I am his pastor. And I am not just his pastor, but I am the pastor of 500 others who call our church "home."
As I waited in the courtroom for his appearance (which took place more than 90 minutes after his scheduled time) I listened as others received their day with justice. There was a young woman charged with theft and forgery; she has served time and will now serve more time plus a fine. There were three young men, all separate cases, all of whom were involved in issues regarding alcohol and/or thefts of various kinds. Each of them will serve some jail time in addition to fines. There were two young women recently apprehended in a burglary which involved serious threats of assault. They will sit in jail with heavy bails above their heads until their cases are finally complete.
And then there is our son. I have not seen him face-to-face for months. I have written letters to him, and I have visited him occasionally, but seeing someone through the monitors in a jail is not really the same thing. Today he shuffles into court, his feet shackled. He is is slender, taller than I remember (he is probably now 5'10"), lean and muscular. His very short reddish blond hair clashes with the bright orange of the county jail clothing. His self-imposed tattoos gleam in their sickly blueness beneath the bright lights of the courtroom. The bailiff announces the case: "Michael Ward Fletcher versus the State of Minnesota."
He is seated with his court-provided attorney. At the adjoining table are the representatives from the Department of Corrections and the County Attorney's office. The judge cursorily glances at the paperwork and asks, "Has a plea bargain been reached?"
"Yes, your honor," the lawyer from the county attorney's office confirms.
Of the five felony counts Mike has been charged with, he has agreed to plead guilty to a charge of breaking and entering that is "just under" a felony count. Because of his numerous other legal run-ins in the past two years he has acquired "points" of some sort (I am not an attorney, so I don't understand the specifics, but I do know that it means if he does something illegal the next time will result in serious charges). The judge asks a few more standard questions and then says, "Mr. Fletcher, please stand for your sentencing."
Our sedate son, his face etched with the somberness of his situation, rises to his feet. He is expressionless throughout the judge's words. I don't know whether it is because he has already read and agreed to the plea bargain (so he is aware of the details), or whether he has consigned himself to whatever might befall him, or if he just doesn't really understand that he is about to hear. Mike is bright, but his FASD (fetal alcohol spectrum disorder) limits his executive functioning, so it is difficult to know what he really understands and what he doesn't. I suspect he is more confused than I am about the sentence. There are many details, some of which are connected to previous criminal activity that affect today's outcome and which are linked to the provisions of the sentencing.
My eyes squint and my eyebrows arch as I hear the words: "You are hereby committed to the Minnesota State Commissioner of Corrections for a sentence of twenty-two months." I look at Mike. I can barely see the outline of his profile, but his hands, clutched behind his back are unmoving. Even from the distance I can see his whitened knuckles, but they do not move. His face is granite, his visage unwavering, his emotion stoic.
The judge's stentorian voice continues. Mike will be on probation for a period of up to five years, during which he is to remain alcohol and drug free, remain law abiding and work "as you are able." He is to serve up to 360 days in the county jail (I have not heard whether that is concurrent with the other term), pay restitution amounting to several thousand dollars, and serve (I think) 80 hours of community service. He is not to enter B--- Avenue U----d M----dist Ch---ch again, without their permission.
The hammer has fallen.
The bailiff brings to my son, the criminal, his sentencing paperwork. Mike signs where he is directed. And he turns toward the officer who has brought him into the court room. It is a small court room; we are close to one another, but we cannot exchange a hug or a handshake or any other physical contact. I move in his direction, and he says, "So, do you think you could visit me tomorrow, Dad?"
In that split second of time there are many things that pour through my mind. I could be whimsical and retort, "Well, at least I'll know where to find you for a while." After five or more years of his running away, treatment center stays and juvenile detention and (now) jail and prison time, I don't have to wonder where he is sleeping, what he is eating or what illegal act he might be committing. Or, I could go "parental" and say, "What? You've just been sentenced to nearly two years in prison and that's all you can say?" Or, I could be pastoral and offer grace, "Mike, we love you and we forgive you."
But all I can say is, "When are the visiting hours?"