The Judge and The Speech
Once in a while, even a federal judge can feel the weight and frustration of crime.
We think of judges as stoic and impassioned, stock-still in their black robes as they dole out rulings from the bench. But sometimes, as they oversee the steady hum of the wheels of justice, they hit the brakes and say, "Hold on a second. What's going on here?"
Though not with those exact words, that's what happened the other day at the federal courthouse downtown. U.S. District Judge Michael Mihm, in the midst of a typical day of typical drug cases, couldn't help but pause and slowly shake his head.
Before him stood another crack dealer. But this one was different. He'd had a decent childhood. He had strong family support. And, perhaps most remarkably, he was disciplined enough to say no to drugs. He didn't do crack - just sold it.
Mihm expressed dismay at the entire situation. So, he gave The Speech.
Mihm doesn't often do The Speech. But it pops out when he gets particularly frustrated.
"The people in court are getting tired of hearing me give The Speech," Mihm says with a light chuckle.
But Mihm, 64, can't always subdue his vexation, not after 25 years of seeing drug cases continue to burgeon.
"I don't know how many people I've sent to prison on drug charges," he says with a sigh. "The line never ceases."
The Speech centers on one, maddening question: "Why are so many people bent on self-destruction?"
It goes on from there: "It's not just the people doing the drugs who are destroying themselves, but also their families."
Plus, there is the burden to society, from the costs of courts to the ravages of crimes that support drug abuse. As a study this week shows, for the first time more than 1 percent of Americans are incarcerated - "the majority probably for drugs," Mihm says.
Mihm readily acknowledges The Speech doesn't uncover any new ground: The same dilemma faces all urban areas.
But Mihm just wants people to listen: "I think every community has to have a full discussion on this. I'm not sure we're doing that."
Mihm says that in the supply-demand view of drug trafficking, law enforcement does an efficient job at attacking supply. But society - Mihm, you, me - must address the demand.
That's the hard part, as Mihm admits. The Speech had no solutions. Even after a quarter-century of observing the problem, Mihm has been unable to grasp solid resolutions.
"Maybe I should have more ideas before making statements," he says quietly.
Still, he has yet to abandon hope. He doesn't want to spend the rest of his judicial career simply sending more and more convicts to prisons. There's got to be another way, he says.
He thinks some people in town have some interesting ideas. For instance, the other day he decided to pay a visit on Dream Center Peoria. Just a few years old, the not-for-profit organization focuses on turning kids and adults around, giving them skills and attitudes aimed at pushing them away from crime and along the straight and narrow.
"I was impressed," Mihm says.
Who knows? Maybe one day The Speech will have a different ending, one with less frustration. And maybe even one day, Mihm won't have to give The Speech nearly so often.Written by Phil Luciano, Peoria Journal Star