EDITORIAL: Young and stupid, but not so bad

HIS VOICE HAD that whiny, pleading tone some teenagers use before they learn that not everyone is as interested in their problems as they are.

This kid didn’t live around here but he acknowledged he had done something stupid while he was passing through Columbia County. It involved a vehicle violation, and, if I recall correctly, some marijuana. We had reported the charges against him as the police stated them.

He acknowledged the incident had happened but said all of the charges had been dismissed in court. In the days before web searches, he might not have called this newspaper. Back then it would have faded in memory and never reappeared unless he got in trouble again or decided to run for high office. But now the report of the stop that landed him in trouble was hanging out there for everyone to see, including college admission officers and prospective employers.

He asked that we remove record from our website. Begged might be more accurate. It was going to ruin his life, he said. It sounded as if an older woman was nearby, trying to calm him down or maybe urge him on.

The issue he raised is an ongoing debate in the news media. Should we ever expunge a digital record? Some papers–it’s usually only newspapers that cover this sort of news–say absolutely not. What’s published is sacred, and any withdrawal of news from the public domain runs counter to the basic principles of good journalism.

This high and absolute moral standard makes sense for those who can afford it. But we take a different approach. Recognizing the limited resources we can devote to following up on all but the biggest stories, we regularly expire some routine web posts. Call me ethically squishy (or worse), but I prefer a policy that allows for compassion and common sense. There’s not much of that on the web, that I’ve noticed.

I doubt our approach will help this young man very much. We confirmed that the charges were dismissed before acting, but the digital world is full of zombie data, and he may well be haunted by his youthful mistakes for years to come, despite the dismissal.

What brings all this to mind is the announcement this week by Governor Cuomo that he supports legislation to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana in public. The “in public” part is critical especially in New York City, which has a “stop and frisk” policy that has led to criminal charges against thousands of young men, many of them black or Latino. City cops were ordering suspects to empty their pockets and arresting those who brought out small amounts of marijuana, because state law makes exposing the drug in public a more serious crime than keeping it hidden.

No one has reported to us that this is happening here. And judging from our police blotter reports, local police stops–as opposed to planned drug busts–often start with police officers doing their jobs keeping the rest of us safe: pulling over reckless drivers, breaking up fights or investigating other types of criminal behavior. Marijuana is a small part of most cases.

The bill the governor supports is backed by the top law enforcement officials in New York City, and it doesn’t seem likely to have much of an effect on what police do here. But even if it makes a difference in a handful of local cases and a few kids who might have faced a misdemeanor drug crime instead get a violation and a second chance to make better decisions, then it’s a law worth having.

Yes, some kids act like jerks and worse. I can personally vouch for that.

The humiliation that comes with getting caught might do some of them a world of good. But the world is different now from what it was before search engines made the records of our worst behavior immortal.

I know that some people who’ve led more upstanding lives than the rest of us will say that the people snared by this odd public-private part of the drug law get what they deserve. But Ii hope those folks keep in mind that we punish ourselves with laws like this one. They strain our justice system and waste human capital. We can’t afford that anymore.

This is a small step in the right direction and all our state lawmakers should join the governor in support of this bill.

 

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