The Gulf between the Poor and the Justice System is Widening

Justice is not served by overcrowded prisons. Justice is not served when Miranda rights are twisted and authority is abused. But the main culprits for INjustice are the three sisters of Hubris, Ignorance, and Apathy

There are many reasons our prisons in the U.S. are bursting at the seams.The latest toll is 14 million a year. My anger concerning this issue has been on a slow burn over many years. The catalyst for breaking my silence is a piece I read on the NPR news blog (National Public Radio) about judges having too much power. A couple of the quotes really hit home:

  • . . . judges who are supposed to be neutral arbiters too often put their fingers on the scales.”
  • Public defenders are paid little or nothing at all. Article quote, “you did good work … but we don’t feel like we should pay you for all the work that you did”.

Let me tell you about my credentials for seeing the underbelly of justice. It has been my lot in life to know those on the poor end of the scale. Big whoop. I was raised by a hard working man with a strong back and little education. My mother suffered from mental illness all her life — even as a child. It was in the DNA. This affliction got its tentacles into many family members, even to the next generations. It is wreaking havoc and misery in its wake — not just for those who are unlucky enough to have to live with it, but also for those who have to live with them. In my mother’s time there were few medical resources for this “problem”, though her last years were lived in lucidity and peace.

In my formative years, my social circle included my church — where I learned at least the parameters of the term “normal” — and the world of the poor and disenfranchised. There were the working-class, honest poor, like my dad. And then there were those who, for one reason or another, ran afoul of the law. I lived between these two worlds, and watched and observed. So these are my credentials for knowing what I know. And now we come to those reasons our prisons are overcrowded. and how I know that justice itself in this country is broken.

In spite of the “Miranda Rights” the poor have little or no resources to defend themselves. In fact in some cases, “Miranda” is a lie. Quoting the 1966 law, here is Number four: If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.

Through one young man I knew, I found out that the #4 Miranda right isn’t written in stone. In fact, he had just graduated a few months before the life-altering bad decision that landed him in jail and in court. He had a job until then, but nothing like enough to pay a defense lawyer, even a lowly ambulance chaser. so he claimed his right to an attorney. The judge wouldn’t allow it. His Honor told him he could pay it by whatever means necessary. The “means” bankrupted his parents, who, because of health problems, were already holding on to hearth and home by their fingernails.

When I looked into the matter, it turns out this is not an isolated case and here’s the problem. The Miranda Law has broad exceptions. They are there for good reasons, but in the actual reading of the rights, these exceptions are not mentioned, and most of us are not even aware of them. Here, from the horse’s mouth so to speak–Criminal — is the real deal:

  • In order to have a public defender, you’ll have to convince the judge that you can’t afford to hire an attorney on your own. The judge may ask you to fill out a form detailing your financial resources, assets, income and debts. You may also need to provide the court with documentation such as pay stubs to prove your income level.

But here’s the rub:

  • Standards for how much money you can make and still qualify for a public defender vary greatly from state to state, and sometimes from one court to another.

This is something our exciting TV shows do not address. I can see the reasoning behind the qualification, but I feel it should be made as public as the reading of the rights. I also don’t feel the qualifying decision should be left up to a judge who doesn’t know the meaning of the word “poor”.

In another personal case, a family member who suffers from mental illness was also denied a public defender. He has such bizarre episodes he cannot keep a job so he is on a mental disability. Let’s put it this way. Some of his actions are so bizarre that two of his psychiatrists have terminated him as a patient. Yet . . . when he asked for a court-appointed attorney on a charge that was, in itself, suspect, he was told by the judge, and I quote, “I don’t feel like giving out attorneys today.”

There are other injustices from the justice system aimed at the poor and disenfranchised (without clout, without power). It has to do with shady actions by the court itself and this happened to me personally.

My brother was jailed for public intoxication. My mom and dad were still alive then and I was their caregiver. Dad gave me a check for $200 to bail Brother out. Dad was, by then, retired and on Social Security, and told me to make absolutely sure we would get that money back. I told dad that my brother would be there at court no matter what condition I got him there in. But Brother understood that money was a big chunk of Mom and Dad’s fixed income, and there was no problem.

When I gave the woman at City Hall the $200 check, I grilled her about everything that could possibly go wrong in getting the money back. I told her emphatically that this was my dad’s money, and he didn’t have much of it. She assured me, each time, that there was no problem just as long as my brother was there for court. “I’m taking your word for it,” I told her, “and I’m holding you to it.” I remember every tit for tat of that conversation because of what happened at the hearing.

My brother and I were two of the first ones there and the place promptly filled up. It took a while to get to us. When they did, my brother went up to the desk where a low conversation took place between him, the judge, and the woman from City Hall. My brother turned pale and walked back over to me. “Now don’t make any trouble,” he said real low. “But they are keeping dad’s $200 because they say I didn’t show up on a charge ten years ago.”

At that moment lightning struck. “Oh, HELL no,” I said, jumping to my feet. “They haven’t SEEN trouble yet.”

I marched up to the desk, held out my hand, and said, “I want my dad’s $200.” The judge went silent. The woman tried to argue with me. She had no idea how close I came to being arrested. At that moment I knew her for a liar and a thief and suspected that the whole county system was corrupt. I threatened with the only ace in hand I had. I let them know I was a former reporter and that I wouldn’t hesitate to once again report. The judge held his hand up to the woman and said, “Give her back the money.” I snatched the check from her hand and got the hell out of there before I did something I would not regret.

All I could think of was all the poor souls who were robbed of their slim resources by the “justice” system. Many do not know their rights. I don’t even think it was legal to go  back ten years on a case in order to keep bail money from a current one. Especially one with the city clerk’s word that the only reason would be a current no-show.

Then there are the bad examples of those who are charged with upholding justice. And let me say here I have the utmost respect and admiration for those officers of the law who have integrity and courage. And I believe they are in the majority. They stand firm between us and anarchy. But Justice weeps over those who are corrupt, and there are those in the system who know who they are. Here is a personal case in point:

Another brother was jailed once for public intoxication. He was chained to the bars at the city jail and beaten within an inch of his life by the CHIEF OF POLICE in front of other officers. A few weeks later, the said chief swaggered up to my mama. “How you doing Ms. McDaniel?” he greeted, knowing who she was. Mama spit in his face and walked away.

For another example, my son was once hired as a temporary prison guard at a nearby facility, pending background checks. He never made it to full employment because, he said, the guards were worse than the prisoners. One guard, who wasn’t quite as bad as the others, once warned him not to eat the lunch he had brought. The guards had peed in it. If they do that to a fellow guard, what in the name of God do they do to helpless prisoners?

No. I’m not saying all guards are bad. They are not. There are some good ones who want to make a difference. There are some prisons that take care of those under their authority, over which they have the power of life and death. And there are some that don’t.

How do they get away with it? Because, even with the large prison population, most people have not been touched by the horrors. And the majority who do not know it personally, don’t care.

All many people can envision are mass murderers, child murderers and worse. Their reasoning is, if someone is in prison, then they deserve to be there. They don’t want to listen to the abuses of power, which come from both the justice system and the hierarchy of the prisoners themselves. Their thinking is if these “animals” are in hell it was one of their own making.

I’ve visited many prisoners before. One was the son of an old friend of the family. The man was a three-time loser for drugs. He was in for life.. I have been a keen observer of the misery inflicted on the families. If they were poor or on the edge before, they were decimated now. No matter what you hear about how good prisoners have it, they depend on family or friends for such personal items as soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste, writing paper, stamps, underwear, socks. If they get anything from the prison store, money must be sent to an account they can draw upon. And the store is not cheap.

It is heartbreaking to watch the families visit. Pitiful children with their fathers, hugging them, crying over them. And many of the children look impoverished. Yes, I’ve wanted to write about this for a long time. But I was afraid I would say too much. That people wouldn’t understand. I’ve even had some tell me that they would never be able to understand because their family was too good to ever have a loved one in trouble with the law. They gave the impression it was demeaning to even know someone like that.

Do these people even hear what they are saying? Do they know how insulting that is to anyone who has known and loved someone in jail, in prison, who has run afoul of the law, for whatever reason? Do they know how it demoralizes and grinds down the spirit.

Years ago, an old, tired-looking woman came into the newspaper office and asked for me. “I’d like a copy of that story you wrote about how mothers love their children no matter what they do,” she said. I was at a loss. I had never written such a story. As I pulled more information from her, I began to suspect it was a story about a murder in our town that had so many complications it nearly tore the community apart. As it happened? I knew the killer. I knew the family. And I had tried to calm down the frenzy of public opinion by telling their story. But the only thing this loving mother got out of that article, was that it was about mothers who loved their children no matter what they did. I cannot stand the thought of that poor woman being crushed by people so insensitive to her pain.

And do they know how very wrong they are? It CAN happen to you. It CAN happen to someone you love. You can be destroyed by justice whether guilty or not guilty. And it doesn’t just happen to the poor.

Prisons, my friend, are mainly overcrowded, and Justice weeps, because people simply don’t care, or don’t think of prisoners as human.

I have been told of young men — some 18-year-old boys and not violent offenders — turned loose in the general population for first offences for drugs, or some other non-violent crime. Timid boys. Terrified. And one of the prisoners I talked to will never cease to hear the screams that battered his consciousness his first night there. It is inhuman.

Oh, I believe in justice. I believe that justice should be served. I know that there are awful, evil people in our society who deserve whatever punishment they get and more. But I also know that poverty, mental illness, and just plain old bad decisions play a big part in crime. These should bear their punishment, also. But they should not be crushed under corruption and the flouting of the law by the law itself.

The prisons are filled, my friends and fellow citizens, not just because a crime has been committed, but because the system is broken. It needs to be fixed. People are actually making profits off the prison system and more bodies means more money. Mental health care in this country is broken,also, and keeps the prison cells filled. But that’s another story for another day.

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