Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Our Jails are a Disgrace

Nobody wants to think about jails. In our system they serve as holding tanks for people awaiting trial or arraignment, or as short-term prisons for people accused of drunk driving or minor drug charges. So people move in and out of them very rapidly and nobody has much incentive to care about them. But they impose real burdens on people who can't afford bail or a private lawyer even when they are well run, which they often are not. In Baltimore in the 90s the jail was a huge scandal because people put there just got lost, some of them languishing for weeks before anybody noticed them, others walking out without anybody noticing they had left. A new report from a liberal  outfit called the Vera Institute of Justice calls attention to some of the ongoing problems:
The number of people housed in jails on any given day in the country has increased from 224,000 in 1983 to 731,000 in 2013 . . . even as violent crime nationally has fallen by nearly 50 percent and property crime has dropped by more than 40 percent from its peak.
And who are those people?
Jails across the country have become vast warehouses made up primarily of people too poor to post bail or too ill with mental health or drug problems to adequately care for themselves, according to a report issued Wednesday. The study, “Incarceration’s Front Door: The Misuse of Jails in America,” found that the majority of those incarcerated in local and county jails are there for minor violations, including driving with suspended licenses, shoplifting or evading subway fares, and have been jailed for longer periods of time over the past 30 years because they are unable to pay court-imposed costs.
Because people accused of minor crimes sometimes just don't show up for trial -- and because of lobbying by bail bondsmen, who have way too much influence on this -- judges have lately been imposing bonds for even trivial offenses, and people too poor to post a $1000 bond are spending weeks in jail awaiting trial.

Another part of the study found that a large portion of jail admissions are a small group of people who are admitted repeatedly:
In New York City, from 2009 to 2013, about 400 people were sent to jail on at least 18 occasions each, which accounted for more than 10,000 jail admissions and 300,000 days in jail.
These are mainly homeless drunks or belligerent lunatics, and frankly the cops keep tossing them in jail and then letting them out after they sober up because nobody knows what else to do with them.

We could do a lot better, if we cared.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

"...judges have lately been imposing bonds for even trivial offenses, and people too poor to post a $1000 bond are spending weeks in jail awaiting trial."

You live essentially hand to mouth. You struggle keep up on your car insurance payments, and your coverage lapses for two or three days until you get paid. You get pulled over during that time because one of your tail lights is out and you haven't had the money to replace it, and since you're driving with lapsed insurance you get thrown in jail.

You simply can't afford the $1000 bail, so now you're in jail for several weeks. 1) You aren't working and therefor lose several weeks worth of waages. 2) You will have probably lost your job by the time you get out of jail due to time missed. 3) You will pile up several weeks of unpaid bills, which you're already only ever barely ahead of, if that. 4) You still have to pay court fees, on top of late fees for a variety of household bills, on top of governmental fees to get your driver's license reinstated so you can go look for a new job.

You're now so far in the hole that even if you get a job immediately, you'll still be lucky to subsist on anything other than instant ramen for the next few months. And you'd better hope you're lucky enough not to get sick while you suffer from malnutrition. And that your car doesn't break down, or get repossessed, or stolen, or damaged in any sort of accident. Or really that any sort of crisis at all doesn't occur. And all the while the wealthy resent and despise you.

So, what, is our justice systen run by Franz Kafka?