POSITIVE-LEE: My heart goes out to poor Jason Vonstraussenburg. He’s the UCSB technician busted last week for having escaped from a low-security Michigan state pen 37 years ago. Since then, it appears Vonstraussenburg has led such an exemplary life that even his ex-wives reportedly speak well of the man. And at UCSB-where he worked the past 14 years-Vonstraussenburg was regarded as an ingenious and helpful techie in the university’s labs. Even so, someone saw fit to drop a very large dime on the man’s head. As a result, Vonstraussenburg is now headed back to the hoosegow, ridiculously overcrowded as it no doubt is. While this seems a shameful waste of an obviously rehabilitated life, the outcome was pre-ordained. After all, the man’s real name was Roger Lee Crona. And as everybody should know, anyone with the first, last, or middle name of Lee is in for big trouble. The Rule of Lee-no longer merely a theory-holds that anyone afflicted with this name is predisposed to criminal and/or anti-social behavior. Naturally, law enforcement officials have turned a blind eye to this obvious fact, and as result, we are squandering limited resources we can ill afford on a penal empire that expands on a daily basis. Vonstraussenburg tried in vain to sever his connection to his Lee nature. First, he adopted a name bursting with impregnable Prussian probity. Then, he registered as a Republican, a party infamous for its hostility to rehabilitation efforts. None of this alters the basic fact that 37 years ago, Vonstraussenburg-Crona was caught driving a car registered to someone else and bearing an altered license plate. For that-and his middle name-he must pay.
For all of you Doubting Thomases, recent news accounts are exploding with the misdeeds of the various and nefarious Lees out there. Collin Lee McGlaughlin, 18, was arrested in West Covina this January for killing, execution-style, two teenagers for no reason at all. In his MySpace page, McGlaughlin billed himself as an “Equal Opportunity Merchant of Death,” and elaborated, “I entered this world screaming and covered in someone else’s blood and that’s how I intend to leave it.” Or there was Charles Lee “Cookie” Thornton of Kirkwood, Missouri, who walked into his town’s city council meeting and killed one cop and four councilmembers. Why? He thought the tickets he’d received for illegally parking construction equipment had been oppressive. Or Kevin Lee Graff, the Hollywood meth head who just pled guilty to decapitating a 91-year-old ex-screenwriter who’d been blacklisted during the 1950s for his alleged communist sympathies. Graff’s motivations were probably not political, given that he also visited the screenwriter’s next-door neighbor and stabbed him to death.
Not all Lees are so gruesome. In fact, some straddle the line between criminal and just plain mean, nasty, or nuts. There’s Ernie Lee Holmes, one of the most feared defensive lineman of the 1970s who was part of the Pittsburg Steelers‘ famed Steel Curtain, who proclaimed himself “stone crazy” after shooting at a police helicopter. Holmes, who just died, took relish in knocking out opposing players and described how the ensuing “moans and groans” got “the adrenaline flowing within me.” Or what about Georgia Lee Frontiere-who also just died-the former owner of the Los Angeles Rams. In 1995, she yanked the beloved Rams out of Los Angeles and moved them to St. Louis, leaving Southern California tragically bereft of an NFL franchise for 13 years now. My favorite, though, is Stephen Lee Johnson, now director of the Environmental Protection Agency. A Bush appointee, Johnson has blocked all efforts by California to enact even stricter emissions controls and gas mileage requirements than those required by the federal government. Johnson’s intransigence comes despite the advice of EPA scientists who have argued behind closed doors that California is entitled to stricter standards because its residents suffer disproportionately from the health consequences of air pollution. Johnson has also made no effort to comply with last year’s Supreme Court ruling giving the EPA the authority to regulate greenhouse gases. Under the Bush regime, the EPA has resisted all efforts at regulating gases that might precipitate global warming. Little wonder. Until recently, the executive running Exxon-Mobil-Lee Raymond-had steadfastly denied the existence of global warming and under his watch had surreptitiously funded research that would “debunk” the science supporting global warming.
I mention the Rule of Lee not to highlight how adroitly I can look through the wrong end of the telescope. It’s because for the first time ever, more than one in every 100 Americans is now behind bars. That’s not just crazy, that’s really expensive. Combined, all 50 states are spending $49 billion on locking people up. That number was $12 billion in 1987, but will jump to $74 billion in the next three years. According to a study recently released by the Pew Center on the states, one out of every nine state employees nationwide is involved in corrections work. The U.S.-with its 2.3 million behind bars-puts China and Russia to shame, with their 1.5 million and 890,000 respectively. Texas has now eclipsed California in terms of raw number of inmates, but California still leads the nation in dollars spent-$8.8 billion-and that doesn’t include the $7.9 billion new prison construction bonds just approved. (Some of that money, however, has been set aside for prevention and intervention programs.) Currently, California spends almost as much on its prisons as it does locking people up. And, you guessed it, the wheels of justice seem to grind more finely on some folks than others. While only one out of every 106 white males is behind bars, the figure is one out of every 15 for African Americans, and one out of 36 for Latinos.
The fact is we can’t afford this anymore. Is it merely a coincidence the size of California’s yawning budget deficit-$8 billion-is almost identical to its prison budget? Some problems you can’t solve by locking up. But maybe you can get better results by something as silly and stupid as changing a name. I predict the crime rates would plummet if the next president banned everyone from naming their babies Lee in the years to come. We could start an amnesty program for people named Lee who agree to change their names-but to anything other than Ray or Wayne. Sure it’s ridiculous. But look at how we’ve done so far. And look at how well Roger Lee Crona actually did once he changed his name to Jason Vonstraussenburg.
In the meantime, I’ll be sailing out in the harbor. I’ll be heading in any direction other than leeward.