Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Window dressing

Back in April of this year Harris County received a $2 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation to reform its criminal (in)justice system. According to county officials, the immediate goals were to reduce the population of the Harris County Jail (the state's largest mental health facility) by 20% over the next three years. There was talk of more personal bonds and diversion programs. There have also been a multitude of committees set up to discuss ways to make this happen.

It's all a mirage, however.

Currently 48% of the inmates at the Harris County Jail are black while African-Americans make up only about 19% of the population in Harris County. Those numbers alone tell you a lot about they manner in which "justice" is meted out in Harris County. Throw in the fact that almost 70% of the inmates haven't been convicted of a crime and you get a better picture of the way things work down here.

Our system of mass incarceration has nothing at all to do with reducing crime. It's all about social control. We arrest and lock up folks for drug use instead of providing treatment. Judges set bonds at rates that folks can't pay and so they sit at the jail and wait for their court appearance where an appointed attorney will work out a deal with the prosecutor for them to get out of jail - with a permanent conviction on their record.

So long as the government continues to carry out its mission of marginalizing minorities and the surplus labor pool, ain't nothing going to change on that front.

What does the county propose? Form a committee, and several sub-committees, and hold a series of meetings about making the criminal (in)justice system more efficient. Efficient for whom? Certainly not for those accused of violating the law. Certainly not about decriminalizing drugs or making low-level drug offenses a ticketable Class C offense.

Nope. What the county wants to devise is a system in which cases move quicker through the courts, reducing the courts' dockets and increasing the number of pleas. The diversions Devon Anderson (Harris County DA) talks about are just another way of placing folks under the thumb of the criminal (in)justice system.

Specialty courts such as drug courts, DWI courts, mental health courts, veteran's courts (and whatever flavor of the month court is next up on the list) are little more than an illusion. If we were rally interested in helping these folks out we wouldn't be prosecuting them and holding the threat of jail or prison time over their heads. If we really wanted to help them they would receive the treatment they need without the coercive power of the state standing behind the curtain.

If the county were serious about reducing the number of folks sitting on their hands in the Harris County Jail awaiting the disposition of their cases, we would issue personal bonds for everyone charged with a non-violent misdemeanor or any drug possession offense. If we were serious we would eliminate a bond schedule that serves only to enrich bondsmen and coerce pleas.

If we were serious about this we would stop law enforcement agencies from acting as occupation forces in minority communities and enforcing the law in a disproportionate manner. And we would certainly stop arresting and jailing folks for status crimes. Taking an addict to jail instead of providing treatment does nobody any good. Let's treat drug addiction for what it is - a public health issue (just look what Congress did when it turned out a lot of white folks were being arrested due to opioid addiction).

But this is not what's going to be done. Instead our county officials (and their lackeys and stooges) will stand up on a stage and announce proudly that they've re-arranged the deck chairs on the Titanic.

After all, it's a lot easier to dress up a window than it is to fix a problem.


Lee said...

All of this is rue but it goes deeper than that. The attitude of fear and anger that causes the cops, guns, handcuffs, SWAT team, and incarceration to be the first recourse in dealing with society's problems to one of true justice and compassion that makes those cops, guns, handcuffs, SWAT team, and incarceration to be a last option for society.

What that old saying about attracting files with honey as opposed to salt? I wonder if there would be such fear and anger in those minority or indigent communities if we were to spend a fraction of those millions spent on incarceration were instead spent on education, housing or medical insurance? If those that work the courthouse system were intent on building a new Soviet Union, you are correct in that they are on the right track. Many experts would agree with you including Radley Balko, David Dow, Michelle Alexander and Bryan Stevenson.

If those in authority want to win hearts and minds (and even make their own jobs much easier) in building the land of freedom, justice and liberty, they need to reverse course of that earlier mentioned attitude of fear, anger and punitiveness.

But since you and I already know this, how then is this attitude adjustment to be made? Obviously not with a wrench or pliers?

Lee said...


I prosecutorial retaliation included in the prohibition of prosecutorial misconduct?

I was thinking about the guy whom wins a successful appeal only to be retried by the same prosecutor seeking greater charges and punishment...or the vocabulary term trial penalty where the defendant is subject to twice the punishment than what was recommended in the initial plea conference...or where a prosecutor uses the threat potential legitimate investigations or charges against a witness to elicit desired testimony (like in Sabesta's decision not to prosecute Cookie so long as Carter said what Sabesta wanted to against Graves or threatening a CPS investigation against a single mother on the side of the road to secure an asset forfeiture award).

It seems to me (living like most Americans only 2 paychecks away from starvation) that the threat of arrest (specifically the grief that the process brings me going through the handcuffs, having to post bail, losing my job, having to hire a lawyer, check in with pre-trial services, check in with the bondsman) is more than enough to change an witnesses testimony whom is just looking to get back to their life and family with the least entanglement even at the expense of the truth.

I saw the documentary of CNN death row stories where Juan Moreno was threatened with a misdemeanor of perjury by DA Susan Reed should he recant his testimony and shed the light of truth on the Ruben Cantu case. The threat of the misdemeanor was more than enough to silence Juan Moreno (whom was in the country illegally) and shut down the investigation into Cantu's case.

I got me to thinking if any would any American stand up to that threat and take the risk of being arrested (risking their own livelihood) for another defendant? Is prosecutorial retaliation legal and here to stay?