Any One of Our Clients
Freddie Gray could have been any one of our clients. As the Chair of of the National Association of Sentencing Advocates, I urge you to take a moment to read his story. However, if you work in the criminal defense system it will sound unfortunately – sadly familiar to you. I was born in Baltimore and have lived near or around the city my entire life. I have told the stories of dozens of young men who lived in conditions very similar to Freddie’s. Their paths may have crossed because those paths lead them to our criminal justice institutions. When we meet our clients, we ask them to tell us their story. Sometimes we are like first responders, untangling critical episodes of the traumas they’ve experienced. Only the traumatic events may have happened days, months or years before, the wounds are still fresh and in many instances have never been heard. As sentencing experts and social workers, we are putting their cumulative trauma story together for the first time.
The article written by the Baltimore Sun on April 23, 2015 reads very much like a section of a social history report that we would submit to the court during a sentencing proceeding. This article shared that Freddie and his siblings were exposed to toxic levels of lead above 10 (mg/DL) which is the state of Maryland’s threshold for concern. The CDC states however believes that anything above 5 (mg/DL) is cause for concern. Whichever number you latch on to Freddie’s level were above both. A law suit filed on his behalf, documented a history of educational, behavioral, and medical problems. It mentioned a history that involved the criminal justice system, but no documentation of extensive intervention to undo the damage done to each of these areas.
Here is the shocking part of the article. The landlord’s defense was that Freddie suffered from other issues that could have contributed or caused his behavior problems, his school failures, or even his medical conditions. The attorney who represented the landlord, argued in his defense, that it could have been the fact that his mother used drugs, or that Freddie was born premature, he cited the family’s multiple moves, his mother’s illiteracy, and even documented that Freddie’s family lived in poverty. What’s ironic to me is that these risk factors, which we know from too many sources to cite, impact the development, decision making and futures of generations of young black children and families. Some of the risks suffered by Freddie and his siblings, are the same and maybe more extensive than almost every child in Baltimore City (and similar urban cities) living in poverty.
Their stories are told every day in criminal courts across the country by the public defenders that represent them, social workers, investigators, and other members of defense teams. Their efforts are sometimes labeled as attempting to offer the court excuses, or perhaps deemed to be irrelevant to their juvenile and criminal behaviors. Judges will say that their bleak conditions in no way excuses them for their crimes. Although their stories are not told to make an excuse, they are told to give the court insight into the conditions they suffered under.
Fortunately, not all judges come to this conclusion. There has been light at the end of the tunnel on this issue in Baltimore. You should know that more and more judges in Baltimore City understand the impact of the risk on the men, women and children that come before them. They are requesting that our Maryland’s Office of Public Defender Social Workers come to court with reports and help them understand what they need.
You see civil attorneys who make millions on representing slum landlords who seek to avoid paying compensation to poor children impacted by lead paint exposure should not be able to use our clients’ atrocious lives as a defense, while the same stories go unrecognized in criminal and juvenile court proceedings.
If there is justice for Freddie in his story, there will be justice in the stories of millions of men, women and children who are disproportionately represented in jails and prisons across the county. Hopefully, the exposure of Freddie’s life (postmortem) gives hope to all of us that the voices of the voiceless and their stories never heard will now be a focal point in understanding that Black lives not only matter but that every life has a journey and sometimes we need to stop, listen, and take action before it is too late.