Tyler Gross

One night not too long ago, a 21-year-old college student with not much to do decided to attend a party. To protect the identity of the young man and his family, I will not name him or the college.

At this party, the young man met some friends and some enemies and drank a lot of cheap beer. At around 11 p.m., he was very drunk and in an argument with an old enemy, who was a member of the frat house where the party was held. The cause and content of the argument are unimportant. The important thing is where it ended (on a couch in the backyard of the frat house) and how (with a cigarette extinguished on this couch).

You will not go through college without becoming familiar with this kind of couch. It's always ugly and has been exposed to all of the elements: rain, sun, hail, snow, ice, and so on. It hasn't seen anything like a living room in decades and is covered by stains, each with a different and most likely seedy story. The one thing you must never do with this type of couch is look beneath its cushions.

Near midnight, the young man had had enough of his enemy's dumb bullshit and decided (as an expression of his exasperation) to put his cigarette out on the couch's right arm. This left a fresh burn mark. The young man then left the party, went back to his house, entered his messy room, and passed out on a mattress on the floor.

The next morning, he was awakened by loud knocking on the house's front door. He answered it with a massive hangover and found, to his complete surprise, two police officers standing on the porch.

The officers asked if he was such and such. He said he was indeed such and such. They then informed him that he was under arrest for attempted arson, cuffed his wrists, and put him in the back seat of their patrol car. They drove him to the police station, booked him, took a picture of him, and placed him in a cell.

He could not believe what was happening. One minute, he was entertained by dreams in a boozy sleep; the next, he was sober and sitting in jail. What did the fraternity say to the cops? Did they claim he tried to burn down the house? Perhaps he was being a bit rebellious, and knew the cigarette would cause a little damage, but he was just disfiguring an already much-disfigured couch. That's all.

Why in the world was he charged with first-degree arson, which has a mandatory sentence of seven years? Really, was burning a hole on an old dumb couch first-degree arson? He then fell into this deep thought: What if prison was mostly filled with people who did dumb shit?

That had never occurred to him before, and with good reason. The news and cop shows focus exclusively on society's worst criminals: serial killers, mass murderers, terrorists, traffickers of sex, and the like. What if he went to prison and found almost none of these extreme villains, but instead men who, like him, were doing hard time for something totally dumb?

The young man shared his cell with two other men, one of whom had been stuck there for more than a month. The other was spending yet another night in the slammer (something to do with a missing postage stamp and a girlfriend). When not sharing their troubles, the men were watching the TV.

That afternoon, around 2 p.m., the young man learned that his arraignment would not occur until 10 a.m. the following day. He had hoped his arraignment would happen before the courts closed that day, but there was (there always is) some delay in the process. This meant he had to spend the night in jail.

It was one of the longest nights of his life. Why? Because he could not sleep. "Two things happen to you in jail," he explained to me. "You eat bad food and you get bored out of your mind. Man, you are so bored, you can't even sleep. I had never known boredom like that before. You close your eyes, but you get so bored of your closed eyes, you open them. Then you get bored of your open eyes (nothing to fucking see), and you close them again. You do this all night. All night."

The next day, the young man stood before a judge. His eyes were red from a lack of sleep. The court was already busy. Ninety percent of the defendants were dealing with a DUI. The fact that the young man was charged with attempting to burn a couch down to the ground was, that morning, the most exciting case in the court.

Luckily, the judge was not that impressed by the crime and almost immediately knocked down the young man's charge to negligent endangerment, an offence that was much lower than arson but still could land him in jail for a year. A date for the sentencing hearing was set, and the young man was released without bail.

What lesson did the young man draw from this experience? What lesson can he share with other college students? He cannot emphasize this fact enough: Money matters in the American court system. It doesn't matter what kind of shit you are in (real or dumb), if you can't afford a competent lawyer or settle fees or pay for bail, you are basically and truly fucked.

The young man was very lucky that his parents, even though they are not well-off, had $5,000 readily available, because that's what the young man's lawyer charged up front. Most Americans are not so lucky. And that was not even half of the total cost for this whole stupid adventure. The total cost to his parents for his dumb shit was $11,000.

Now, the young man was lucky. Indeed, the Federal Reserve Board recently estimated that four in ten Americans can't even cover a $400 emergency expense. CNN reported on January 26 that on any given day, nearly 500,000 Americans are in jail just waiting (days, months, years) without a conviction, and many of these men and women are being held because they can't pay the bail, which can be as low as $3,000. And they tell us the United States is the richest country in the world.

The college student's conclusion: If you are going to do something dumb, first make sure you are not poor. The other conclusion: Don't set furniture on fire.