Pretrial Justice: Reframing the Picture
A picture is worth a thousand words. True, but only to the extent that the viewer sees what the photographer intends. Stories, too are constrained by the way in which they’re told; the lens that is used. They can convey messages and themes beyond the immediate actions they contain and can illustrate and exemplify in addition to describing. But again the message received is dependent on the way in which it’s delivered.
When told well, one story, like that related by Jacinta Hall in early April of this year, can get at the heart of a large problem as Ms Hall’s did for the complex issue of pretrial reform.
Markuieze Sherod Bennett, one of Ms Hall’s clients, was beaten to death in a Hinds County, Mississippi jail while being held pretrial for a probation violation and carjacking charge. Unconvicted of either the probation violation or the carjacking, he was held in what Ms Hall describes as a “death trap.” He was 21 years old.
While Mr. Bennett’s case is extreme, we know that pretrial detention can be dangerous and damaging and, as such, should only be used when no other reasonable means of ensuring a defendant will appear for trial or stay arrest free while awaiting trial can be used. When detained unnecessarily, defendants lose jobs, key relationships are damaged and family members who depend on them may suffer. Recent research has also shown that even short periods of pretrial detention are correlated with future criminality, even when accounting for differences between defendants.
It is important to tell these stories in order to draw attention to systemic flaws in our pretrial systems and to tell them through the lens of pretrial justice. In a scan of local media coverage of Bennett’s murder, news outlets refer to him as simply an “inmate,” or as “serving time for strong armed robbery.” Few reports speak of his status as pretrial or as unconvicted, presumed innocent. The stories instead focus on problems with the facility; leadership, gang activity, funding. They don’t mention the myriad pretrial practices that would have allowed Bennett to await trial in the community, with appropriate supervision. They don’t mention that the only way in which Bennett’s risk of missing trial or being rearrested before trial was measured was through this ability—or inability—to pay his bond.
It falls on us—you as defenders and us as advocates for pretrial reform—to tell the hidden side of these stories. It is up to us to convey a sense of outrage when Jerome Murdough, a homeless Marine Corps veteran charged with trespassing, is needlessly detained on $2,500 bond and dies in an overheated Rikers Island jail cell. Likewise, when a Vermont man charged with killing his 2 year-old stepdaughter who had previously made threats against the child’s mother posted $250,000 bail and remains in the community, we should express frustration with pretrial systems that detain or release, regardless of risk, based on financial means.
We are asking you, as public defenders who see the victims of pretrial injustice up close, to let us know when you become aware of a case that deserves to have a light shined upon it. We want to share these tales of injustice with our growing numbers of supporters and partners and anyone else we can reach. By doing so, we believe, we can help promote pretrial reform that results in better justice outcomes and fewer tragedies like that of Markuieze Sherod Bennett.
To share your story or alert us to one visit our website, or simply send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
On July 25th, Cherise Burdeen will be doing a webinar for NAPD on Pretrial Justice
July 25 at 11:30 AM Eastern, 8:30 AM Pacific
PJI’s “Pretrial Justice 101” presentation examines the purposes of bail and how the current system is failing to accomplish those purposes. Solutions, including pretrial risk assessment are discussed along with examples of successful pretrial reform efforts. Recent research and public opinion work is used to explore the future of pretrial justice in America.