My previous two posts (Class Warfare I and II) looked at how fiscal policy and the conservative right’s war on unions have hurt people at the bottom half of the income scale. Now let’s delve into an area where the penalty for being poor is the most brutal — our criminal justice system.
At the outset, let me tell you why I became deeply concerned about this aspect of poverty.
First my daughter, Crandall Story, has been a public defender since graduating from law school at the University of North Carolina. She served first in Greensboro, NC, and now works in Nashville. Her clients are the poor of course, and her experiences inform my attitudes about the criminal justice system in our country. To say that I’m proud of my daughter’s vocation is a dramatic understatement.
Second, my wife Lucy and I live half our lives in New Orleans, My experiences there have affirmed something I’d heard about the state of Louisiana — that it’s aptly called the incarceration capital of the world. My views have been influenced by the local news media; God bless them for often exposing the horrors of the Orleans Parish Prison and similar prisons. In New Orleans, I have a ringside seat to the most active front in this theater of class warfare.
Soak in these facts:
- According to the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association, 2,181 people have been locked in Louisiana’s parish jails for one year or more without being tried. Of these, 448 have been held between 2 and 3 years; 141, between 3 and 4 years; and 85, more than 4 years. They have been accused, yes. But not tried or convicted. http://www.nola.com/opinions/index.ssf/2018/04/jail_numbers_corrected_but_que.html
- Two countries in the world permit a for-profit bail bond system — the US and the Philippines. If you follow the news at all you will note that keeping company with the Philippines vis a vis criminal justice is sad commentary indeed. Just Google “Rodrigo Duterte” if you’re unaware of what goes on in that country.
- Our bail bond industry writes about $14 billion in bonds annually in the US. They are a powerful lobby, especially at the state level, for maintaining the status quo.
- The for-profit bail bond industry directly benefits companies that operate for-profit prisons because it keeps prison populations high. Writing for the Nashville Scene (www.nashvillescene.com), Cari Gervin stated, “Similarly, although defendants who can’t make bail cost Davidson County taxpayers money, they boost occupancy rates at the CCA-run jail — and that boosts revenues for CCA shareholders.” CCA stands for Corrections Corporation of America, a large operator of for-profit prisons. And, by the way, in whose moral universe is it desirable to profit by incarcerating people?
- Every day about 450,000 Americans who’ve been charged with crimes languish behind bars, in many cases simply because they’re poor. They landed in jail because they were charged with a crime; they languish there because they’re too poor to post bail. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/16/magazine/the-bail-trap.html
- The plight of poor defendants — remember, they haven’t been convicted of anything yet — takes a turn for the worse when they’re entrapped by the bail bond system. To get out of jail pending trial, they have to pay the bondsman 10 percent of the bond amount set by a judge. If the judge sets a $10,000 bond, for example, they must put up $1,000 of the total. But they have no money, so they borrow the $1,000 from the bail bondsman, at exorbitantly high interest rates. According to The New York Times article cited below, interest rates on past due payments are as high as 30%. And even if they behave perfectly while out on bond, and show up for each court date and are ultimately acquitted, their troubles may not be over. If they miss a payment to the bondsman, they’ll be hauled right back to jail. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/31/us/bail-bonds-extortion.html
If you ponder these facts and read only a few of the articles cited, you may be saying to yourself, “Why isn’t this a bigger story?” “Why isn’t the country outraged by a double standard that mocks the ideal chiseled on the front of U.S. Supreme Court building: “Equal Justice Under Law.”
Let me suggest some answers. First, the victims are the poor and overwhelmingly minority — black and Hispanic. Who is going to care about them? Second, the people working in the system — public defenders, court appointed lawyers, police, etc — are too damn busy to go out in the street or in the public square screaming bloody murder about the injustice. My daughter sees all this first-hand but she is totally occupied with defending her mostly indigent clients. The same goes for the many thousands of other public defenders. Third, there’s more to be gained politically by campaigning on law-and-order issues (“lock her up!”) than by advocating reform of the system. Fourth, on the local level, especially in places like New Orleans, bail bondsmen exert considerable political power to stifle any talk of reform by legislators.
Between 2005 and 2012, one of my jobs was to manage a day center for street people in downtown Providence. While there I met a man named Richard. He’d done some time and because he lived on the street, had been arrested occasionally for minor violations of law — usually some kind of misdemeanor assault. Richard was, at that time, rather pugnacious. Well, Richard persuaded me to become his Social Security payee (have I mentioned that I am a pushover?) — the person who receives and doles out his Social Security income and deals with the Social Security Administration on his behalf. Over time, I became more and more involved in Richard’s life, almost to the point of being his guardian.
One day Richard called me. He was in jail, accused of attempted car-jacking, which had resulted in injuries to the driver. He denied the accusations and was acquitted about 3 years later. I accompanied him to court on the day of his trial.
Richard’s long wait in legal limbo isn’t the point of his story, though.
When he was arrested, his biggest concern was that he might lose his public housing if the manager of his building noticed his absence. After years of homelessness, his name had recently reached the top of the waiting list for a subsidized apartment. If I hadn’t bailed him out, he’d no longer be eligible for public housing, and he’d have been homeless again. So my minor expenditure and some time dealing with jail officials saved Richard from homelessness.
The point: The poor are most likely to lose their jobs, housing, etc., after an even short stint in jail. They may decide not to take a chance on charges being dropped or eventually being released. By that time, their lives probably would be ruined. So many of them plead guilty in order to avoid losing their housing and jobs while they await trial in jail.
Here is an actual case my daughter has allowed me to share with you.
“I had a client recently who was unquestionably unconstitutionally seized (meaning there was no legal reason for the police to stop him). If he were able to post his bond, I would have filed a motion to suppress the evidence against him because of the 4th Amendment violation. I am confident I would have prevailed in that motion and that his cases would be dismissed, but that process would have taken months. Instead, he is going to plead so he can get out of jail. Case in point. . . .Secondly, I am signing people up for probation that requires money in order to comply with. There are probation fees, there are court costs, there are drug test fees, (and) if there are court-ordered classes or treatment, those will cost money. All of those things require reliable transportation. So taking this probation plea offer may get clients out in the short term, but I know there is a decent likelihood that they are going to end up right back in jail when they can’t afford to comply with probation.”
Who is doing anything about this scandal other than pointing it out as I am? Two organizations come up over and over again in my research. First is the Equal Justice Under Law group (www.equaljusticeunderlaw.org); the other is the Southern Poverty Law Center (www.splcenter.org). These organizations are suing to prevent the kind of abuses you will read about in the articles above — both unfair bail requirements and the predatory practices of bail bondsmen. Other groups have put together funds to actually pay the bail for certain indigent defendants. An example is the Nashville Community Bail Fund. (www.nashvillebailfund.org)
What I’ve described is hardly the only criminal injustice in our country. Another great scandal is the mass incarceration of young blacks and Hispanics. As a Christian, doing nothing isn’t an option. I am compelled to get involved in some way, thanks to what I have learned from my daughter and various journalists. Obviously I’ll vote against politicians who don’t recognize the cruelty of our money bail system. But that’s not enough. I’ll also actively support those who are on the front lines — the lawyers fighting the system and the bail funds that help people who are arrested post bail rather than spending days, weeks, months — even years — in jail awaiting trial.
Today, about 1,300 inmates are in the Orleans Parish Prison. Only a fraction of those have been convicted and are serving time. Many more await trial, unable to post bail. Some will be released on probation, or for time served, or because the district attorney decides not to prosecute. But how long will it take? Will they be able to pick up the pieces of their lives after a couple of months or years in jail? I am not sure I could. But I don’t have to worry about it because I have enough money to bail myself out.