Monday, August 29, 2005

Eight Years Without a Trial

A man in Louisiana recently had his murder charges dismissed because he has been sitting in jail for eight years, waiting for a trial. I don't even know what to say about a situation like that. It is simply inexcusable for someone to sit in pre-trial incarceration for eight years without going to trial. It is hard to know from the article where the blame should lie--defense attorney, prosecutor, judge. Probably a little of all three. But, ultimately, it is the judge's responsibility to see that a jailed defendant goes to trial. Around here, you have a lot to answer for if you have someone who has been in jail for a year and has not gone to trial yet.

It is no suprise to anyone that the criminal justice system runs a lot differently if you are poor than if you are rich, or even middle class. Almost all of my clients are in jail, meaning that they are too poor to post a bond before trial. Many of these people have bonds set between $1500 and $5000. That means that they sit in jail on just probable cause because neither they nor their famlies can scrounge together between $150 and $750 to post a bond. For some of these people, pre-trial incarceration can last months or even more than a year. Just imagine what type of consequences being in jail for that length of time can have. It often means lost jobs, lost housing, and sometimes children put in state custody. It also means that these people have a much greater incentive to accept a plea bargain for probation than those who are on bond. If even an innocent person is faced with the choice between sitting in jail for months--losing his job, losing his apartment, and losing his kids--while they wait for a trial (with no guarantee of winning, of course), and the option of pleading guilty, being placed on probation, and immediately being released, which option do you think they are going to choose?

Like so many other problems facing the poor in the criminal justice system, I'm not sure what the solution to the problem is. I do think more people who can't afford bond, but who can prove that they have an established residence and employment, should be able to be released through a pre-trial release program. But beyond that, I'm not sure what can be done. It just seems to be one of the unfortunate realities of the system.


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