Smile Politely

Where the criminal justice system is taking us: Part 2

This is part 2 of a hypothetical that imagines you are a minimum-wage worker with a car and an apartment. You live by yourself and take care of yourself. The hypothetical imagines a worse-case scenario but is based on a collage of real events that have happened at various times over the years to the predominant demographic of those prosecuted in Champaign County. You can read part 1 here.

Suddenly, on day 53 of your incarceration to be exact, a guard screams your last name and informs you there is a visitor to see you. It must be your mom, you think. You are led to a small room and there sits another nicely dressed female just out of college. She introduces herself to you as a public defender who has been assigned to your case and asks, “Which one are you?”

Finally. Now this mess will get straightened out. She searches through her pile of manilla folders to find your criminal file, (she is seeing numerous in-custody clients today) and says yes, she has it right here. She then asks if you could tell her what you think your case is about. It becomes clear she has not read anything about your case yet. As you re-tell a story about the unfair roadside check for your DNA, when in fact, you are innocent of any rapes they are talking about; she is reading over some police reports you have never seen, or will ever see.

You tell her you’d like to raise the severe Constitutional violations you think exist and would like to move forward with civil litigation against the county and the police department for unlawful restraint. “I feel like I’ve been kidnapped to here for no good reason,” you plead. With your long hair and unkempt beard, your claims of Constitutional grandeur strike your public defender as the talk of crazy people she often hears in this room. She makes a mental note you probably don’t qualify for an unfit to stand trial motion. She offers an affirming polite, “Uh-huh,” like people do when they don’t believe you. She makes another mental note that you might be an “uncooperative one.”

She appeases you nonetheless, “Those might be issues we could investigate further, but for now, I think that what we should press for is a lowering of your bond since you’ve never been in trouble before,” she says. That sounds favorable. You’ve heard of some people getting what’s called an “ROR” (Release On your Own Recognizance,) where you don’t pay anything to get out of jail. Is that possible? She answers, “Well, we’ll certainly try for that, but I have to say, as your attorney, that’s unlikely because of the seriousness of the charges. The judges in this county don’t like to give ROR’s to people charged with felonies.” She counters optimistically that it’s very possible she could get the bond lowered to a more manageable $10,000, leaving you only $1,000 to bond out. You wouldn’t happen to have some family or friends who could post that for you? You’ll ask your poor mom, but you’d prefer that ROR option. “That’s what we’ll shoot for,” the public defender assures, hardly believing her own words.

She then interviews you as to your background to make sure you don’t have any other convictions from other counties or states that might take her by surprise in court. You explain you went to high school in a nearby town and came here to maybe go to school some day, but for now, you were just working to support yourself until you could save the money for school. You have a brother who lives in a far away state, but your mom is really all you got in the way of people. “Well,” she says, “…we’ll try our best to get you out of here at the next hearing. I’ve written your next court date on the back of my card. If you have any questions, contact me.” That’s absurd. The public defender’s office doesn’t take collect calls from the county jail. Neither does your mother anymore. The calls are just too expensive. You flip her business card over to remember the public defender’s name, and you notice the only contact information is a mailing address at the courthouse. “It was nice to meet you,” she says. “I’ll see you at the next hearing.”

More weeks pass. You are onto your second book, and have become friends with a drug dealer, a man charged with aggravated battery, and another charged with illegal use of a firearm. A few game of spades is all your attention span can muster for such a boring game, but the companionship is your link to some form of sanity. People come and go. You notice that it’s the white guys who always get to go free first. They rarely spend much time behind bars.

There are about a dozen of you who are stuck on the pod, unable to bond out. It would sure quiet things down if the jail would get rid of some of the crazies on the block. “No-Brains” they’re called. They are people so disturbed, coherent relationships is near impossible. Like giant ids, these man-childs are high maintenance and in need of a 24-7 caretaker and definitely an interpreter to understand their mish-mash of thoughts about God, the devil, hell, aliens, the CIA or whatever else freezes their minds into fearful, incomprensible narratives. Other than the No-Brains filling the role of that nightmare roommate you’d have evicted, time goes by like a boring cinder block wall. It’s slow, monotonous, always the same day after day; and it’s nothingness changes only when the television news and newspaper change topics. A letter from mom is like a delicious warm pie. You can feel her connected to the pen through her handwriting and it makes you glad there is one on earth who still cares about you. That brief feeling clashes with the heart-wrenching wish you could be outta’ this cold machine.

On the 72nd day of your incarceration, you and some members of your pod are again herded in shackles back into the van for another wisp of freedom to the courthouse for your second pre-trial hearing. This will be the hearing where, hopefully, your bond will be reduced. You and your jail mates are again led into the jury box, but this time you are part of the felony pre-trial docket call, or “the cattle call,” as it’s been nicknamed. Recent felonies by the hundreds are heard this morning and the public benches are crammed with nearly a hundred or more people with some standing against the wall. Shackled and wearing the jail jump suit in front of so many people is completely humiliating and degrading. You notice almost everyone is brown. You can literally count the white people to less than a dozen. The attorneys are white of course, except one tired, older African-American attorney who stopped giving a damn years ago. The bailiffs are extra strict this morning, telling some to shut up, others to remove their hats, and some onlookers (friends and relatives) are asked to leave the courtroom because of their attire. With so many people to process today, the bailiffs are out-manned and tense. Their attitude is take-no-shit.

The judge enters and all rise. He commands everyone can be seated again, and summons for the case files of those in-custody, who will be heard first. Membership has it’s privileges you joke to yourself. Again the rolls are plowed through as continuance after continuance is granted in short order. When your case comes up, your attorney makes a motion for a bail reduction. The judge acknowledges the defendant’s motion and arguments are heard. Your attorney swiftly and quietly reads, with head down, that the defendant has no criminal history, was employed at the time of the arrest, and cannot afford the current bail. The prosecutor counters that in fact, you required two mediations with the School Resource Officer while in high school, and there are two traffic tickets, with one still having an outstanding balance to be paid; but more importantly than all that, the seriousness of the offense requires a substantial bail. The judge agrees, motion denied, and bond will remain at $50,000. You are scheduled to be back in court in a month.

Again, in less than 30 minutes, all in-custody defendants are processed and you and the rest of the inmates are led back to the van. Some of the inmates wave hello’s at friends and loved ones as they clank, clank, clank by the crowd. Some deflect the shame of the moment by basking in the notoriety of the state paying attention to “little ‘ol me.” It is one of the few times they have ever heard their name announced to a crowd.

Back to jail you go to sit and wait. You are beginning to get frustrated by the inability to be heard about this matter so you decide to write your public defender, hoping your explanation will speed things up. You trade three breakfast trays away to acquire use of a pencil, some paper, and a stamped envelope. You do your best to be polite, clear, and forceful as to why you are the victim of a grave injustice. You include a promise to handsomely reward the lawyer who handles your lawsuit which you are certain will be a winning case with a large settlement. That should motivate the lawyers to get moving on your case. Your spelling isn’t that great but you feel confident you have everything written down that needs to be. Your cellie advises you should write the judge too. (He likes getting two breakfast trays in the morning, and he’d be glad to sell you more paper and envelopes.) No need, you think, your letter to the public defender should be enough to begin your national Supreme Court precedent.

Your letter is never answered.

The weeks, turn into another month. You’ve had to say good-bye to a couple of your friends and promises to have a few beers when you meet on the outside is unlikely. Your hope begins latching onto the 120-day rule. “They gotta’ dismiss yo’ case if they don’t try you within 120 days,” say the legal experts on the pod. Good news is good news and you want to believe that at least they are required to hold a trial. Then you will be out of here.

On the 100th day of your incarceration, you are shackled again and taken in the van to the courthouse. Your uncut hair and beard has you looking like a cross between Jesus and a werewolf.

Again, the public defender tells you this morning is just a status hearing. You ask if she got your letter. Yes she says with irritation, but promises she’ll talk about that with you later. “When am I going to trial?” you ask. You can’t now, says the public defender, the jury pools aren’t in session until next month. Your case is continued until next month. Back to jail you go.

In the ensuing weeks, a couple of the guys begin to not like each other. Their arguments get more furious with each clash, and promises are exchanged to “F— ’em up,” if they do whatever again; until finally, they do go at it. The guards are in the pod within less than a minute, and shoot pepper spray at both participants and fill the air with the awful stuff. Piles of giant overweight guards knee both men all over their bodies as they apply handcuffs. Both men are hauled off the pod, coughing and shouting in pain from the spray. Your pod is put on “lock-down,” and the day area is closed. Everyone must remain in the sleep cell. It’s a five by nine room with a sink, toilet, and two bunks. You and your cellie are locked in for 24 hours without television, and suffer the enormous farts your cellie has because of the daily servings of milk. Thank God you like to read nowadays.

Every day you wait to hear from your public defender. You can’t imagine why they would tarry with millions of settlement dollars waiting in the wings. But no letter arrives. You have a feeling of Christmas approaching as you near day 120 of your incarceration. They have to let you out. When day 120 comes you yell to the guard from under the slot where food trays are delivered that it’s been one-hundred and twenty days and according to the law, you have to be released if the state doesn’t try you in that time. The guard tells you to shut the fuck up, he doesn’t know what you’re talking about, take your tray and step away from the door. Another constitutional violation. You’re certain that your case is all the more lucrative and surely you’ll be released once your public defender brings this up at the next hearing.

On the 128th day of your incarceration, you are once again shackled and loaded into the van to be taken to the courthouse. Once again, you and the inmates are led to the jury box, and once again everybody’s case is continued for jury trial. You are starting to get enraged by this stalling. You demand from the public defender to know that the heck is going on. You ask why isn’t your case getting dismissed since the 120 days is up. She whispers the case can’t be dismissed because there’s been several continuances. What’s continuances have to do with it? She carefully explains, like you would to an unruly five year-old, that once you ask for a continuance, the 120 day rule no longer applies. You counter that you didn’t ask for shit, in fact, you haven’t said a fucking thing all these months since you been in jail. Well, she says with authority, that’s what’s in the record and the judge won’t throw out your case on account of the speedy trial rule. You begin to feel the public defender is working against you, not for you. She once again says she should have some information later in the week.

Two weeks pass when you get a visit from your public defender. She’s received an offer of two years of probation and a fine of $500 dollars in exchange for your plea of guilty to the obstructing justice charge. Outrageous you say. You didn’t obstruct justice, you obstructed injustice. You demand they drop the charges and there’s no way refusing to let a police officer search you is a crime. It’s still a free country, isn’t it? She claims to understand your frustration and encourages you to think the state’s offer over and she’ll meet with you in the upcoming weeks.  Back to your pod you go.

Check back tomorrow for part 3 of the series.

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