Monthly Archives: March 2012

System overload: plea bargains vs. trial by jury

A recent NYT editorial by Michelle Alexander, civil rights lawyer and author of The New Jim Crowe, posits a striking question: What would happen if everyone who was charged with a crime actually exercised their right to a trial by jury?

If you grew up watching Matlock as much as I did, you might think jury trials are fairly common. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the accused take plea bargains; more than ninety percent of criminal cases never see a jury trial. Thus the amount of resources that would be required for all alleged offenders to receive jury trials far exceeds what is currently available at the state or federal level.

The answer to that question, then, is this: Chaos would ensue. Alexander writes:

Such chaos would force mass incarceration to the top of the agenda for politicians and policy makers, leaving them only two viable options: sharply scale back the number of criminal cases filed (for drug possession, for example) or amend the Constitution (or eviscerate it by judicial “emergency” fiat). Either action would create a crisis and the system would crash — it could no longer function as it had before. Mass protest would force a public conversation that, to date, we have been content to avoid.

So why do the accused so often take pleas? Haven’t we all been raised with the ideal that a jury of one’s peers is the highest standard of justice available in a democracy? Don’t we know that the burden of proof is with the prosecution, making it possible that even a guilty person could walk away unscathed from a jury trial?

The truth is, most people can’t afford a lawyer who will be able to spend any significant time or energy on them. They probably know little to nothing about the criminal justice system, and – particularly if they’re Black or undocumented – most of what they do know is more likely to instill fear or distrust than idealism or faith. So when they’re told (usually by their own defense lawyer) that a plea bargain is their best bet, that even if they’re innocent they’ll likely be convicted and given a much harsher sentence if the case goes to trial, many people feel powerless to challenge that.

And for a lot of folks, a plea bargain really is a good thing in some ways. Especially if the person is guilty of the offense, they often receive shorter sentences or probation from a plea bargain, and really can go home sooner. If they’re worried about what’s happening to their kids, for example, or just scared shitless by living in jail, many people will take the plea bargain first and ask questions later.

But once at home, secondary forms of punishment abound. Particularly for people convicted of drug offenses, public benefits like subsidized housing and food stamps are frequently revoked. Conviction records make finding jobs more difficult, and can result in people losing custody of their children. And if the person is convicted of another crime, the sentence could be much harsher as a result of the earlier conviction.

People who demand a trial by jury experience a longer waiting and trial period, and some probably do receive harsher sentences than the plea bargain would have offered. But many do not. And if the number of people who exercised their sixth amendment rights merely doubled, it would be enough to bring the current system to a crashing halt and require our country to seriously consider the way we lock people up.

It’s pretty depressing that simply utilizing our rights would so drastically disrupt today’s justice system. It’s also pretty exciting to think that the people who are often treated as the least powerful players in the criminal justice system have a very powerful resource at their disposal. That’s something to think about.

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Singing a different tune: Federal corrections planning to sell mp3 players in commissaries

Federal prisons across the U.S. are making an interesting shift in 2012: by the end of this year, incarcerated men and women in federal facilities will be allowed to purchase mp3 players and tracks from their prison commissaries.

This decision has been defended as a creative way to “[keep] inmates constructively occupied” in order to cut down on disorder and violence. It is also promoted as a way to keep people in prison connected to the outside world.

I’m all for treating people in prison like people, people who are into stuff like music. And if I were in prison and living next to someone who screamed themselves to sleep every night or had to listen to CO’s verbally abusing my peers all day, I can’t think of anything I’d rather have than a pair of headphones and some Tracy Chapman.

Inmates will be permitted to download songs from a database of about 1,000,000 titles. But – and here’s the rub – the songs available will be pre-screened and essentially consist of only “G” rated tracks. They will also be screened for “disruptive” songs.

So I’m ambivalent. I mean, anything that increases the quality of life for people in prison is good. But don’t you think it sounds ridiculous to say that neither people under the age of 17 nor people in prison can purchase explicit music? In that way, this is just one more opportunity to infantalize incarcerated people.

One last point: realistically speaking, the purchase of mp3 players is not an equal opportunity endeavor. Sure, some people had money when they went to prison, or have family members who have money. Particularly in federal prison, where most white collar criminals are sent, some folks could certainly afford this luxury. But I’m going to go ahead and make the educated guess that most people in prison can’t afford that shit – they certainly won’t pay for them out of their wages from prison labor. For them, this new “freedom” will offer just another way to highlight their economic disadvantage.

Check out the U.S.A. Today article here.

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A debt for society: phone charges extort loved ones

If you pay any attention to prison issues, you’ve probably heard folks complain about the high cost of making a phone call while incarcerated. Here’s a snapshot of the situation:

Rates vary by state, but range from $.048/minute in New York to $3.95 + $.69/minute in Oregon (intrastate). That’s 72 cents for a fifteen minute call in New York versus $14.30 for a fifteen minute call in Oregon. Unfortunately Oregon inmates can’t request New York rates.

The higher rates are the result of kickbacks to state contracting agencies. Some states have no such “commissions,” while others charge up to 60% of revenues – raking in $152 million per year at an average of 42% of overall revenues nationwide.

Oddly enough, a CCA (private) prison in Oklahoma actually closed because of a binding contract with AT&T. The prison, located in Sayre, was home to about 1,000 Wisconsin prisoners who were getting charged such high rates for long distance phone calls that Wisconsin insisted AT&T lower the rates. When AT&T refused, the state of Wisconsin transferred all its prisoners to a different CCA facility with better rates, shutting down the Sayre prison and resulting in the loss of 225 jobs for Sayre residents.

While some people seem to think that this is a “don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time” kind of thing, this is not a price paid by incarcerated people. This is a price paid by their – disproportionately poor, disproportionately female – loved ones.

Positive relationships with family members is the number one indication of success upon re-entry for folks getting out of prison. A huge number of people in prison never receive a visit, especially if they’re sent to a private facility out of state. In light of that information, we should be paying people to make phone calls, not gouging them with rates when they do. When we make it harder for people to keep in touch with family, we increase the odds that we’ll be paying for their incarceration again shortly after their release.

See the Prison Legal News article here.

Life until death: The numbers

1 in 11: The proportion of the U.S. prison population currently serving life sentences.

141,000: The number of people serving life sentences in the U.S.

29: The average number of years served by people sentenced to life in prison. This is up from 21 years in the 1990′s.

1 in 3: The number of people with life sentences who have life without parole.

2,000: The number of people serving life sentences in Mississippi. Also the number of people serving life sentences in Germany. (Mississippi’s total state population is about 2% of Germany’s total population.)

2,500: The number of people serving life without parole sentences for crimes committed when they were under the age of 18.

43,000: The number of people in California serving sentences as a result of “3 strikes and you’re out” legislation.

$19 billion: The amount of money California spends each year incarcerating 3 strikes prisoners, half of whom are incarcerated for non-violent offenses.

Life without parole is often gestured to as a humane alternative to the death penalty. But since life without parole has been increasingly used as a sentence, few potential capital punishment convictions have been “reduced” to life without parole. Instead, people who would never have received a death sentence receive more and longer life sentences. A lot of noise is made about the 3,300 people on death row in the U.S. Perhaps some noise should also be made about the 141,000 who have received the “other death sentence.”

Check out Marie Gottschalk’s excellent article on this topic for the Prison Legal News.

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