When Will All of Us Be “Us” and Not “Them?”
It’s election time in our community. Sadly, our community is broken into “us” and “them” and never is it more stated publically than during election season. People, whether they are friends, colleagues, strangers comment on how “they” will vote. The “they”, in question, almost always refers to people in our community who are not of the group as the speaker.
What really troubles me, is when do we move to “us” in our community? Until we reach the idea of “our” community with its inclusive there will always be the divisive “us” vs. “they” which will continue to allow people in our community to accept and tolerate without question, the idea that we have second class people in our community Acceptance of “us” and “them” leads to the idea that some people deserve better in the community. “They,” the others, must settle for what is left.
Among other societal problems, this translates into a two tiered criminal justice system in which people who have money and are arrested can make bond and people without money who are arrested for the same thing must stay in jail. In other words, if one has money and can post bond, arrest, while still significant, does not disrupt an entire life as much as it does those who are unable for financial reasons to make bond. While this is not news to the public defense community, it appears that even those in law enforcement are beginning to understand the issue. Cook County, Illinois, Sheriff Tom Dart, wrote an editorial for the Wall Street Journal on the topic of excessive bail for poor people published on May 31, 2016.
If one is in jail because bond is not available due to economic circumstances, families must visit when the jailer deems it is suitable for the schedule at the jail. The jailed person must follow the jailer’s schedule for everything else including when to rise in the morning, when to eat, when to exercise, when to go to bed. Additionally, if the jailed person wants more than the minimum provided for indigent people in custody, he or she must have a family member put money on the account and buy other food items and personal care items from a list provided by the jail. There is no consumer choice as to brand. Jailed people are bussed to court usually in clothes not their own, do not wear their own shoes, escorted everywhere by guards, and told when they may speak or not. Jailed people or their families must pay for telephone calls to family and friends. For those who are unable to make bond, this is the reality until the person is released from confinement while those who can make bond on an identical charges go on generally with life as usual while the case works itself through the process.
Our jailed clients are anxious to have the cases over because they are hopeful that that they will be released from confinement sooner rather than later, but at what cost? Another conviction, another series of fines and probation, another period of supervision by the state are all predictable outcomes. With all of the scholarly, research based information out there that money bail does not make a real difference for assurance of appearing at court appearances, which is its stated purpose, it is difficult to comprehend that there is any other reason other than “us” v. “they” for the money bail system and its impacts on poor people as they face the crushing weight of the criminal justice system. Let’s get to “us” in our community and use risk assessment instead of money as a basis for release from pretrial detention. We will all be better for it.
These are the opinions of the author only and do not speak for the Georgia Public Defender Council.