Did you like my feature story from the end of March? Watch part two here to see a video follow-up on Caitlyn Arnold: hear about why she began, her personal thoughts on her situation, and her plans for the future. Don’t let Hollywood fool you about the realities and struggles of our everyday lives – it’s not as easy as it looks.
Check out my audio story here.
It was an unusually warm evening for November. I remember because I was standing on the side of the road – wearing capris, a t-shirt, and metal cuffs around my wrists – as I watched my girlfriend be shoved into a police car. What seemed like hours (more like 15 minutes) later, I was in an identical car heading to the same station she was. I turned 18 four days previous, and she was 19. That night, Nov. 25 2014, both mine and Caitlyn Arnold’s lives changed forever.
Per the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s 2014 arrest data, over 700,000 arrests were made on marijuana-related charges in that year alone. Of that, 88.4% were for simple possession only. That rate leaves us with a marijuana possession arrest being made every 51 seconds throughout 2014.
After spending nearly 10 hours separated, photographed, questioned repeatedly, chained to metal benches in freezing cold rooms, and provided no food or water (save for the sips stolen from the sink after I banged on the window until an officer finally escorted me to the restroom), you would think that we had killed someone or at least almost did. Maybe we stole something expensive, or drove under the influence of alcohol. No, actually – we were both charged with the possession and intent to distribute marijuana. These crimes hold a maximum of one year and five years in jail, respectively.
Seeing Caitlyn for the first time after finally being disconnected from that metal slab of a bench made me realize something – we are now officially partners-in-crime. We both made decisions, separately and collectively, that brought us to that moment in time. More importantly, we both made the decision that the risks of distributing marijuana were ones that we were willing to take – for reasons that I will discuss in more detail later.
Pew Research Center conducted a data analysis in 2014 examining poverty and the federal minimum wage.
Annual minimum-wage earnings for a full-time worker are $15,080. To support one adult and one child would be $16,057. “Full-time” also assumes that you would work at least 40 hours 52 weeks of the year. This is not attainable for most individuals, including myself (a full-time student) and Arnold, who gets a maximum of 30 hours a week at the doctor’s office she works in. As she is studying to further her certifications as an orthodontic assistant, Arnold must also juggle schooling and work hours. It is impossible to ignore why so many individuals, especially those of our generation, are put in situations where doing something illegal is the only way to get by.
“It’s not that I wanted to sell. Sometimes, I regret ever starting,” Arnold told me in a quiet voice. “I was 18 – I really needed the cash in my pocket. I drove a used, older truck because it was all I could afford at the time, so gas was expensive on top of my other bills. Minimum-wage, especially part-time at that, literally couldn’t cut it.”
Arnold was luckily given probation before judgment instead of a felony charge and was sentenced to 18 months of supervised probation. Her monthly probation fee was set at $40, so that alone cost her over $700 on top of court costs and legal representation. That puts the total cost of her first arrest at around $5000.
Arnold describes the system as, essentially, a clever trap.
“It’s like, they want you to quit making money illegally, so they punish you with outrageous fees, jail-time, probation, drug tests, etcetera… but they regret to realize that you have to get that money from somewhere,” Arnold detailed. “I didn’t have the money to support myself, and that’s where the cycle begins. So how else would I attain the money to pay the fees, plus my original expenses? It just continues from there.”
It truly does just continue from there. In Sept. 2016, a mere two months before Arnold would finish her probation, we were arrested again. I was arrested mostly as an accessory item to Arnold – it was clear to law enforcement that she was the main individual, but I was definitely involved. They charged me with the standard possession with intent but they also went for a criminal conspiracy charge, due to my long history with Arnold.
In a twist of fate, the state’s attorney offered Arnold a plea deal that included of all my charges being dropped plus all of hers except possession, if she did 30 days in jail and 3 years of probation. Arnold’s short time in jail nearly made her lose her job. If she had no formal job for her on the outside, what would she have been relying on to support her upon her return? Selling.
“Finding out that I was on the brink of losing the job I’ve had and loved for years was a huge breaking point for me,” Arnold expressed. “I knew that if I lost that, there was no hope in me ever exiting this lifestyle.”
As Arnold, who turns 22 in less than two months, works to pay back her family for legal expenses (over $8000 worth for her second arrest) she has made the difficult decision to continue said lifestyle for the time being.
“It really wasn’t much of a decision at all,” she corrects me. “I have to do what I have to do. I don’t smoke anymore, because of probation, but the money is what keeps me around. It’s really that simple.”
Per the Drug Policy Alliance, the United States spends more than $51 billion annually on the war on drugs. More than 200,000 students have lost federal financial aid because of a drug conviction. When this much of the economy is dedicated to ruining lives over small and non-violent offenses, there is a problem. Violent offenders are consistently given lesser offenses than those involved in marijuana-related charges despite repeatedly being proven unharmful and even medicinal.
Society does not realize that a lot of people who commit crimes like this commit them out of desperation. It is more than just looking for a quick fix or an easy way out – it is a lifestyle that traps you. The war on drugs may not be a literal war, but it is costing lives.
On Wednesday, March 1, Dr. Jeff Kukucka presented a multicultural workshop on racial and cognitive bias present in the forensic sciences at Towson University.
The presentation was one of many managed by Dr. Danice Brown as a part of her Multiculturalism in Action Brown Bag Series. The series provides a place for Towson faculty to showcase their research from across multiple disciplines that focus on social justice or multicultural topics.
“The Towson University 2020 Strategic Plan set forth goals related to making Towson a national model of diversity including ‘provide a safe, inclusive, welcoming and peaceful community respectful to all’,” Brown explained. “This brown bag is an initiative that supports that goal.”
Brown wanted to accomplish a few goals with her series. Mainly, she wanted to create a safe space for faculty, students, and staff to be able to learn and grow from each other. A secondary goal was to connect faculty from across campus and various departments to educate each other about research from outside their own disciplines.
“I have met faculty from various departments that I’m not sure I would have had they not attended the talks,” Brown said.
Ever since student activists planned a sit-in in Fall of 2015, Towson has worked to meet increasing demands regarding the safety and inclusivity of the campus with its 2020 Strategic Plan. Brown wants to ensure students know that this is being taken seriously.
“A final goal of the brown bags was to expose students to the vast array of multicultural research taking place on Towson’s campus,” Brown stated. “The message is that Towson is a place where this type of research is taking place and research examining issues of diversity is valued on this campus.”
Students of Towson can confirm that the university is making a visible effort.
“It’s events like this that spread knowledge across the campus,” Brianna Chambers, a psychology major in attendance, noted. “The sit-in changed everything.”
Kukucka, the presenter at Brown’s session that I attended, began his career as an eyewitness memory researcher. Beginning in as an undergrad, he was always intrigued by eyewitness memory recall, why eyewitness’ make mistakes, and what to do about it.
“I heard so many of these stories about innocent people going to prison, often times for 5, 10, 20 years, for something that they didn’t do,” Kukucka explained. “And I really wanted to be part of the solution to that problem.”
Kukucka’s point is that most of those wrongfully convicted of crimes were not white. He believes that a cognitive bias is present in the forensic sciences, based on the way evidence is presented.
“We wanted to see how other extraneous irrelevant information might influence the judgements that [the victims] made,” Kukucka detailed. “Usually, if you hear that a suspect confessed, you’re going to infer that that suspect is guilty. And if you come into the analysis with the preexisting belief that the suspect is guilty, that belief might actually color how you see the evidence.”
Kukucka has conducted extensive research on this subject over the years which he presented at the event. It’s proven that when facts are presented under different circumstances, variation in judgement begins to occur. Based on his 2014 survey, 71% of 403 forensic examiners from 21 different countries agree that bias is an issue in their field.
He and his colleagues have also studied variables such as response time, confidence of answer, and how the race of suspect impact decisions.
“I’ve been really lucky to not only meet a lot of those exonerees, but work directly with police officers, forensic scientists, lawyers, [and] judges,” Kukucka said. “To make sure that they are aware of these problems and that we’re all on the same page in terms of how we can fix them.”
The only real way to solve this issue, Kukucka says, is a complete revamp of the system. He emphasizes that the criminal justice system is ran by humans, who inherently make mistakes and hold an invisible bias.
“Judges, juries, police officers, suspects – they’re all human.” Kukucka stated.
In the meantime, Kukucka urges more interaction between disciplines.
“We need more dialogue between psychologists and forensic professionals,” Kukucka detailed. “We need to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to prevent the potential for bias by restricting the causes of bias, such as, exposure to biased information and other aspects of the procedure.”
The next talk in Brown’s series takes place on April 19 and discusses intergroup dialogue and how to increase empathy and understanding across different social identities. It takes place in Towson’s College of Liberal Arts, Room 4150.
Strvnge Encounters, co-founded by Towson Alumni Salsabeel Abdelhamid and Aayesha Aijaz, is an original creative platform focused on providing a space for individuals who feel
out of place.
“We always thought that we
needed an outlet to express ourselves fully, and we knew that we wanted to start something,” Abdelhamid explained. “We really just wanted to make a platform where we could express ourselves and make sure that people had an outlet to do that.”
When asked about the meaning behind Strvnge Encounters, Abdelhamid gave a personal response.
“For me it mainly has to do with training myself not to be silent because when I was growing up I was always the shy kid,” Abdelhamid detailed. “I always felt like I didn’t have the right to speak, so this platform is really an avenue to challenge myself to be expressive and proud of who I am.”
Strvnge Encounters covers a broad range of topics, such as fashion, poetry, do-it-yourself projects and reviews. They operate through their website, social media and events in the Towson or Baltimore area. Abdelhamid aims to have a place for the many diverse students who attend Towson University.
“A lot of people were confused about what we were trying to do, but it all goes back to creating a safe space for everyone to fully express and discover themselves within this platform,” Abdelhamid stated. “We can’t just call ourselves a fashion blog.”
Both Abdelhamid and Aijaz use their diverse perspectives as Muslim women to shed light on issues that they feel need to be discussed.
“Our first workshop series had to with the intersectionalities of the Muslim identity, which we thought was important because we’re Muslim,” Abdelhamid stated. “We felt that we were complex and sometimes misunderstood, because our identity is simplified through the media.”
Previously, Strvnge Encounters has created monthly event series that provide creative emotional outlets inside of the healing space. These outlets include activities such as painting, weaving, zine making, henna and discussion. Some of these events are specifically for sexual assault survivors or queer people of color and their allies. This is to allow a feeling of safety among participants and to promote a more open discussion.
“It’s important for us to take time out to heal,” Abdelhamid explains.
Strvnge Encounters next event takes place this Saturday, Feb. 25 and focuses on Punjab, India and its fight for autonomy. More information regarding their events, safe spaces, collaborations and other work can be found on their Facebook page or www.strvnge-encounters.com.