Fighting for your Rights in a System of Privilege
According to the Bureau of Justice, U.S. Department of Justice, statistics, in 2003, of 75,573 criminal cases, federal, and state, 95% were disposed of by a guilty plea. The statistics further show that an estimated 90%-95% of those cases were resolved through a plea agreement. In addition, for those seeking to defend their case at trial, under federal laws, a pre-trial determination of “Incompetent to Stand Trial” can be made by the court, if you are not cooperative with your attorney.
In 2016, Augusta, Ga. business owner, R.D. was accused of a crime. Due to his financial hardship, he qualified for a court appointed attorney. The appointed public defender further complicated the case once he determined that R.D. was only interested in challenging the criminal allegations against him. When R.D. did not accept the plea agreement presented by the state prosecutor, the public defender responded by ordering a mental Evaluation for competence to stand trial, and a test for criminal responsibility. The evaluation cited the public defender’s primary concern was that R.D. did not want to plead guilty. Upon con tacting the public defenders office, they stated based on their policy, they do not replace the attorney initially assigned to a case.
The forensic evaluation was overshadowed by the weight of the state prosecutor’s allegation, and a vague record of 4 or 5 minor charges from the past 35 or so years, that were essentially dropped, though they were presented to the court evaluator as though they were prior convictions. One of the charges, for example, was for returning a rental vehicle late, to which the charge that was later dropped was for theft. In addition to this information, provided without context, the prosecutor forwarded the case information, which included the unsubstantiated, and unchallenged allegation. The evaluator reviewed this information prior to conducting the actual forensic evaluation, a standard practice. The resulting report was presented at the court hearing regarding R.D.’s competency to stand trial, to which he did not have an alternative strategy of defense. The judge essentially obliged the prosecutor, and public defender, in signing an order of committal for inpatient treatment at a mental institution, for what is referred to as “Competence restoration.”
The extreme measures to which this case has taken a turn are in stark contradiction to US. constitutional law. More specifically, amendments v, vi, vii. xiii and xiv. Amendments that pertain to the right to due process of law, right to effective counsel, right against involuntary servitude, and equal protection of the laws. The courts ignore these rights in the absence of a competent lawyer. Discuss the questionable practices of the justice system with a private lawyer, and you are likely to be met with acknowledgement. However, you will be hard pressed to find a reputable attorney that will take a criminal case pro, or low bono.
Influence of Poverty in the Criminal Justice System
2013-2015 Federal Safety Net.com statistics cited the US. poverty rate among the black population as almost 3 times that of white, non–Hispanics. Additionally, A US. Census Bureau ACS study conducted in 2014 revealed 27% of black Americans live below the poverty level. In contrast, the rate for all Americans was 11%. The US. Census Bureau reports black Americans make up approximately 13.3% of the US. population, although statistics reported by the Bureau of Justice suggest 1 in 3 black men will go to prison in their lifetime.
Further, The NAACP reports that from 1980–2008, the number of people incarcerated in America grew from 500,000 to 2.3 million. What is more, black Americans constitute nearly 1 million, close to 50% of the total US prison population. Black Americans are six times more likely to be incarcerated than whites, in a country that has one of the highest recorded prison populations globally.
The connection between poverty, and incarceration is glaring, though it is not the only factor in the racial imbalance. USA Today recently conducted a review of 3,538 police departments across the US. The review was based on data reported by police departments to FBI annually. It concluded that black citizens are more likely than other citizens to be arrested in nearly every city, and for almost every type of crime, or offense, from loitering to murder. Information gathered showed 1,581 departments across the US arrest black citizens at rates higher than 3 times that of white citizens. At least 70 departments from Connecticut to California reported an arrest rate 10 times higher than that of the white population. In Clayton, a Missouri suburb, black citizens composed 8% of the population, and accounted for 57% of arrests.
The detrimental consequence of these disproportionate arrest rates is not just that they impact unequal incarceration rates, they factor heavily in how so they contribute. If these arrests, or charges remain on someone’s record, they can be utilized by prosecutors later to build a case against a defendant. This information contributes to higher bond sums, longer sentences, and more convictions. If not expunged, charges stemming from minor misunderstandings can later be mischaracterized to reflect a crime record. Competent legal defense is the last line of defense that separates freedom from confinement. The effects of racism and poverty ripple out generationally, as mass incarceration deteriorates families, communities, and undermines America’s potential.
Change Starts with Outrage
When the president put forth his first immigration order in February 2017, the course changed for millions of people. Plans for attaining US citizenship, taking refuge in the US, and traveling to, and from America’s borders, was altered. Lawyers came forward. There was an outpouring of legal support, and defense for immigrants documented, and undocumented. Where is the outrage over mass incarceration, and its clear racial preference? As a nation, how is this phenomenon of epidemic proportion simply being treated as just an everyday occurrence. For anyone to say racism is no longer enforced, look again. The statistics are more than staggering.
As a society, to change a system that exploits human energy, we must first value the source of that energy. Long established attitudes of racism go well beyond our own personal, inner search for truth. They lie within the foundations of our society. In government, corporations, medicine, law. Wherever there is a lack of diversity, there is exclusion. There is a prevailing presence of boundaries, personal, as well as throughout the physical landscape. These boundaries contribute to a lack of understanding, and fear that is at the root of the devaluing of certain human lives. The leadership lies within our own selves, to change that landscape.
US Constitutional Amendments Cited:
- Amendment v: …Nor be deprived of life liberty, or property, without due process of law.
- Amendment vi: …And to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.
- Amendment vii.: …The right to trial by jury shall be preserved.
- Amendment xiii., section 1.: Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted , shall exist within the United States…