Opinion: Carlee Russell Was Wrong, But Sending Her To Jail Isn’t Right

A judge recommended incarceration for the Alabama woman who admitted to faking her kidnapping.

It remains unclear what exactly will happen to Carlee Russell, the Alabama woman who admitted to faking her kidnapping this past summer, but if last week is any indication, there is reason to worry that a stupid lie will soon lead to an unnecessary jail sentence.

Last Wednesday (Oct. 11), the 26-year-old appeared in court for the first time since the scandal erupted to face charges of one count of false reporting to law enforcement authorities and one count of falsely reporting an incident.

To the surprise of many, Russell pleaded not guilty to each count.

Less shocking is that Hoover Municipal Judge Brad Bishop found Russell guilty of two counts related to the July hoax anyway.

Carlee Russell

Carlee Russell Found Guilty Of Kidnapping Hoax

Yet, it appears Russell’s attorneys indicated before her plea that they would be filing an appeal – making much of last week largely procedural.

“We stipulated an appeal of the case, and the reasoning behind it was that they were trying to ask for jail time, which we totally disagree with, all right," attorney Emory Anthony told reporters.

"So, in fairness, it's no need of having a trial here knowing their position. So we have stipulated an appeal of the case, it will start anew in the Bessemer circuit court."

Even so, one can’t ignore Judge Bishop recommending Russell spend up to a year in jail and being ordered to pay roughly $1700 in fines, as well as over $17,000 in restitution.

Anthony concedes that his client being made to pay for her mistakes financially is fair, but he takes issue with the notion of placing Russell in jail.

"Under the circumstances of Class A misdemeanor first offense, if you can find where someone we're put in jail, just bring the file to me, and I'll look at it," Anthony explained.

“Generally, they're not put in jail. So we totally disagree with that. Restitution, we don't disagree with that. But to lock up and put in jail, we disagree.”

Everyone may not like Anthony’s argument here, but it’s been clear since Russell’s admission of guilt via a statement that law enforcement officials in the state sought to harshly make an example out of her.

When a warrant for her arrest was issued in late July, Hoover Police Chief Nicholas C. Derzis said in a news conference: “Her decisions that night created panic and alarm for the citizens of our city and even across the nation as concern grew that a kidnapper was on the loose using a small child as bait. The story opened wounds for families whose loved ones really were victims of kidnappings, some of which even helped organize searches.”

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall remarked at the time that while Russell wasn't kidnapped, they "don’t see this as a victimless crime," pointing to the "significant hours spent" and "resources expended" in the frantic search for her.

They are not the only people angry with Carlee Russell, though.

For a brief moment, when her story of being kidnapped managed to gain international attention, there was hope that more attention would be paid to missing Black women across the country.

How The Black And Missing Foundation Shines A Spotlight On Otherwise Ignored Missing Black People

Russell was fortunate to have this kind of attention. To many, her lies destroyed her life and helped set back a cause already known for lacking institutional support.

There is something, uh, odd, about placing a 911 call and making up a story of seeing a toddler by the side of the road and then being kidnapped by a man with orange hair with some other woman in tow only to find out that none of it happened.

And that, before these claims, Russell was using Google to ask things like, “Do you have to pay for an Amber Alert?” and “How to take money from a register without being caught.”

It is frustrating that she more or less tried to create hysteria based on the premise of the movie Taken.

It is also bizarre and maddening that several months later, we remain clueless about what happened to Russell during those 49 hours she was “missing.”

Not even her lawyer will tell us yet.

"Well, I think that is something eventually you will find out the why of it," Anthony said in a separate interview.

"We’re not going to get into that. I think at some point in time, I don’t want to put you off, but I think at some point in time, whether we have a trial, or there’s a trial just because the state is pushing the issue, or whether or not we would go before a judge and plead blind, I don’t know right now but I wouldn’t want to talk about certain things right now if you allow me."

The anger and disappointment towards her is justifiable, but Anthony is right also to point out, perhaps despite her mistakes, “we don’t want to just pile on right now.”

"I think she understands what has happened,” Anthony added. “She has apologized. I know you all said through me but that’s not good enough, but she has apologized for what transpired. I don’t want her to have any type of breakdown or anything of that nature, so we are handling her with kid gloves and make sure her mental state is just fine.”

None of us know why Carlee Russell did what she did, and while we don’t necessarily have to wait for an explanation for her to face the consequences of her actions, I don’t think a year in jail will make her a better person.

Only professional help can do that.

As for her wasting resources, yes, she did, and sure, she should pay the state back.

Still, when I think of the wastefulness of law enforcement, I think less of Carlee Russell and more about overblown police budgets – resulting in militarized police forces in communities suffering from underinvestment.

Or when it comes to the failures of police to properly go after kidnappers, sex traffickers, and sexual assaulters, even if Carlee Russell never told that lie, the systematic failures of law enforcement remain.

Sending her to jail will not correct her faults, and the people trying to convince you otherwise may not be as bad as she is, but they’re not helping real victims either.

Michael Arceneaux is the New York Times bestselling author of "I Can’t Date Jesus," "I Don’t Want To Die Poor," and the forthcoming "I Finally Bought Some Jordans."

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