What “Justice Reform” Should Look Like

Back in the old west, when someone was accused of a crime and thought to be guilty, there was normally some sort of brutal execution of other unimaginable horror that befell the accused without much of a trial or chance to defend themselves. The US Justice System has come a long way in how justice is carried out but I think we have a much longer way to go.

According to the University of GA, the current estimated percentage of convicted felons in the US was about 8% of the population as of 2010. We all know that number hasn’t gotten smaller.

SOURCE: https://news.uga.edu/total-us-population-with-felony-convictions/

As a prior criminal myself, in my youth I found myself staring firmly down the barrel of getting that big F on my life’s report card at the ripe old age of 17. While some may think that it was the flex of my natural born “privilege”, the truth of it is I had had so many minor encounters with the law by that point that I had learned at an early age that you don’t tell the police ANYTHING. It was that alone that prevented them from prosecuting me as an adult. That put the courts in a precarious position as they could not prosecute a minor for a misdemeanor and they didn’t have the evidence to run me thru the ringer as an adult. There was a compromise that had to wait until my clock struck 18 but that’s a story for another article. With that being said, I feel like my brush with being a felon gave me some intimate insight and a new understanding of how fast your life can turn upside down.

Most people love the “tough on crime approach”, which I don’t take issue with, but I don’t think they realize how adding to the ever growing list of things that qualify as felonies, different classes of misdemeanors and acts that qualify as “domestic violence” could just as easily turn their world upside down as the next person. Many people don’t even grasp what having one of those convictions on your record means for that person’s future.

Let’s examine a short list of things that a convicted felon CAN’T do

  • VOTE a felon cannot participate in the political arena or have a say in the direction of their own country
  • SERVE JURY DUTY being a felon somehow invalidates the reasoning of someone
  • OWN, PURCHASE OR POSSES A FIREARM a felon cannot hunt to feed their family, protect themselves or just shoot for sport.

Those are just the upfront issues that felons deal with once they are released from custody and returned to the world. There is a real long list of incidental issues that a felon has to contend with that aren’t on that list. Just a few examples are

  • Finding a decent job or someone to give you a chance
  • Possible child custody issues, not being able to see your kids no matter how good to them you would be
  • Getting approved for certain housing
  • ETC…………..

I deal with clients on a regular basis that say they want to live a normal life but can’t because of that permanent mark on their record. I’m not talking about the “I break the law because I can’t do anything else” people.

I’m talking about the lady that called me for a job but I couldn’t hire her because she was a convicted felon for a bounced check from the 1980’s.

I’m talking about the guy I went to church with that was a registered sex offender and got drummed out of all the local stores for being such, because in a small community you can’t hide anything. His crime you ask? Urinating in public. Not on a park playground, but in a dark parking lot outside of a bar.

The list of ridiculous felonies could go on and on but that’s not what I’m here for today.

I have always been uneasy with how the US Justice System deals with people that make mistakes in life. Whether the mistake be a misdemeanor with possible lasting effects or a felony with definite lasting effects. We have long since abandoned the rehabilitate and reeducate position and moved full steam ahead to a convict and incarcerate position. Our system has absolutely no room for concern about the welfare of a released “convict”. It spits you out into the world with very little, or in many places, no support.

I have a simple position in these matters. If someone is so dangerous that they can no longer participate in the normal functions of society, they shouldn’t be released. If it is ruled that a person is to serve X amount of time in jail or prison for their crime, they should be released back into society with their freedoms and rights in tact and their record sealed or expunged. It’s really that simple. There is no need to continue someone’s sentence to the rest of their natural life for a 1 time mistake that anyone could have made in the right circumstances.

As a person that has been a bondsman for 20+ years, I have met a lot of honest upstanding people that happen to be felons. I have also met a lot of people with “clean records” that I wouldn’t trust to walk my dog. What the paper says usually has nothing to do with who the person is.

It’s my opinion that the criminal justice reform advocates are looking at things from the wrong direction. Instead of just trying to figure out how to stop the system from being unfair in the beginning of a case, let’s look at how unfair the system is in the aftermath of the case.

Bail Reform at it’s worst

For starters, I don’t understand this “dog with a bone” mentality about bail. We live in a society now that eliminates all things not perfect. What happens when they run out of things to change and to eliminate?

I keep seeing story after story about how “cash bail” has damaged so many lives and how this person couldn’t afford to get out of jail or that person had to spend their lie savings to get their loved one out of jail. In the article I am citing here, there is a man that sat in jail on $165k bail until it was reduced to $85k and his charges were ultimately thrown out. What then? The man is angry that his mother leveraged her retirement to make that bail, the 10% of the $85k.

In the end, the man was able to bail out and fight his case from a position of conditional freedom. He had the option to bail out or stay in jail. He and his mother chose bail as their best option and exercised that ability. At least he had the option. Future defendants may not.

Source Article: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/rand-paul-kamala-harris-team-reform-bail-practices-n794031

NOW, let’s do a comparison……..

In this article, appropriately titled “jail by algorithm” we see the story of a man that is equally as angry about being held WITHOUT the option of bail due to his ranking in the newly minted New Jersey Criminal Justice Reform Act. This man, whose entire immediate future was computed down to 2 numbers which made him a non-convicted inmate. This system is somehow better than the current system of having bail as an option?

“He eventually pleaded down to possession of cocaine and his gun charge was dropped. He was released on time served after spending six months in jail with no trial or conviction.”

Now that he knows the only way out is thru the system, what choices were left? Might as well plea it out.

Article: http://inthesetimes.com/article/21597/jailed-by-an-algorithm-money-bail-racism-sentencing-bias-civil-rights

“The algorithm, created by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, considers a defendant’s past criminal convictions, past failures to appear in court and current charges of violence, among other factors.”

I wonder what “other factors” are part of the system now and what those factors will look like in years to come. When you remove options from the system, you remove the ability to fight for your rights and freedoms. We have to put a stop to this all or none mentality.

Does the system need to be fixed? Sure, it’s not perfect. Does the system that’s already broken need to be automated? I hope I never have to be judged by a computer. There HAS to be a middle road here. Why couldn’t the guy in the first case have had a reasonable bail to begin with? If the guy in the second case was such a risk to not appear, why couldn’t a bondsman have taken on the burden of making sure he did?

The bail system has its downsides but the day you let the system be your middleman, you will regret it.

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