One hundred and forty-six days.
That’s how long 19-year-old James* sat in jail waiting for a court to even take note of his case. Two hours away from his home in New Orleans, he languished for nearly five full months. Through one Halloween, one Thanksgiving, one Christmas, one New Year’s, and one Mardi Gras season he sat in a jail waiting to appear before a judge. His charge? Three misdemeanors.
His mother, Glenda, spent the better part of that five months calling around to various offices, desperate to get someone to explain to her where her child was and why he was still in jail. One night Glenda — by sheer happenstance — got a public defender on the phone. She was actually trying to call the Orleans Justice Center, but was randomly given the number of Alexis Chernow, an attorney with the Orleans Public Defender’s Office. Alexis was at work after hours preparing for several hearings on the horizon, but she answered the phone. As is true of many public defenders, she was the first person to earnestly listen to James’ story, as recapped by his mother, and start trying to figure out how to help.
Much of my job in Municipal Court centers on connecting people to the appropriate advocate or attorney, but more and more frequently, I work on correcting bureaucratic errors that result in over-detention. Alexis reached out to me, a co-worker, and explained the situation. Glenda said her son was arrested in October of 2016, but instead of remaining in custody at the Orleans Justice Center, he was shipped upstate to the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center, a routine response by the overcrowded Orleans prison.
As of 2014, the latest data available, Louisiana incarcerates nearly 40,000 people, easily making it the incarceration capital of the nation. In 2016, Louisiana spent roughly $3 billion to arrest, prosecute and jail our fellow citizens – the vast majority for nonviolent offenses – and, in 2016, just $32 million on public defenders statewide to ensure justice is done fairly and constitutional rights are upheld. With such a one-sided system, it’s a wonder anyone has a fighting chance at innocence.
The morning I received Alexis’ email I explained the situation to the public defender in the section of court that was holding James. He relayed the information to the prosecutor, believing that perhaps mercy would prevail, the prosecutor would dismiss, and we’d get James released without him even having to come to court.
Mercy did not prevail. We immediately filed to have James brought to court the next day, but weren’t hopeful, as the sheriff has a poor record of bringing people housed out of parish to court that quickly. By sheer happenstance and perhaps a bit of good luck, James appeared before the judge the following day. The fastest way to get him out of jail after his five months lost and waiting? Plead guilty. Plead guilty now and go home, or continue waiting.
So plead guilty he did — to three charges: marijuana possession, simple battery and obstruction of a public passage. The irony is that had he not exercised his constitutional right to contest these charges at his first court appearance five months earlier, he likely would have gone home that day with a suspended sentence and fine of maybe $200.
James is out now. He’s back home with his mother and happy to have the nightmare over. But for so many other people still caught in the maw of the criminal justice system, the nightmare plays on — person after person caught in a system that simply does not see them as human. Those in power rarely spare an extra moment to consider “is something wrong with this, and if so, how can I help?”
The phrase I hear uttered most often by my clients is, “Thank god someone is finally helping.” This is what being on the front lines looks like for a public defender. Listening, helping, observing, and taking action – the essential watchdog. We are the people in the room frequently tasked with monitoring the other actors in this criminal justice enterprise and holding them all accountable.
This is an especially challenging task. It turns out to be excruciatingly difficult to get others to respect the rights of someone awaiting trial. Prosecutors, judges, deputies, and even clerks often operate with simmering scorn for anyone accused of a crime. But isn’t our system built on the premise of “innocent until proven guilty?” Too often, our clients — poor people further marginalized by the color of their skin — are treated to a backwards reading of this ideal: guilty until proven innocent.
The orange jumpsuit and the jangle of chains insinuate that they must have done something wrong, that they are in fact guilty. Not only is this grossly unfair, it’s a bastardization of that foundational principle: innocent until proven guilty. It’s also a disheartening glimpse of the inhumanity at the heart of our criminal justice system.
Retribution is not justice, and treating defendants with disdain and even mockery serves only to dehumanize. Once that process has begun, asking for someone’s rights to be respected is met with anything but open arms.
Additionally, because the criminal justice system is bloated beyond recognition and now functions more like a processing system, public defenders end up being little more than a speed bump on a fast-moving highway. Our job is to make sure our clients are given due process, that their constitutional rights are respected, and that they get a fair trial.
In a system that prizes expedience above all else, when we’re doing our jobs well, it means we’re making everyone else work harder. Justice simply takes time and in a system that over-criminalizes and over-incarcerates, time just doesn’t seem to command respect. James found that out the hard way.
He is just one example of what drives me to continue fighting like hell from the front lines. We’re faced with a daunting task and although we remain under-resourced, overburdened and stretched thin, we continue fighting. In the words of the great Bryan Stevenson, “The most powerful thing we can do to advance justice is to position ourselves somewhere uncomfortable and say, ‘I’m here.’”
I am here. Public defenders are here, on the front lines fighting every day for respect and equal justice for our clients and demanding that the criminal justice system be held accountable.
This weekend we mark the anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1963 decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, guaranteeing the fundamental right to counsel for rich and poor alike. We continue fighting under the banner of Gideon because the Constitution demands it, and equal justice depends on it.
It will take all of us demanding better from our system, demanding fairness and justice, and holding our decision makers accountable. Call upon your representatives to fully fund public defense, speak out against prosecutorial misconduct, call out the unsafe conditions in our jails, and demand an end to police brutality.
Public confidence in our criminal justice system is quite possibly at its lowest. We must work together and say, “We’re here and we demand better.” We hope you’ll fight alongside us. Too many more Jameses depend on it.
*Some names in this story have been changed.
Jacob McCarty oversees operations for Orleans Public Defenders’ Municipal Court support staff, advocates for clients and works to end over-incarceration due to bureaucratic errors.
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