I sit on the Board for The Open Door Prison and Re-Entry Ministry, a non-profit, faith-based organization. The Open Door’s purpose is to help incarcerated women find hope through classes and mentoring. Upon release from jail, we continue the bond of trust and offer guidance through the difficult period of transition into the community. I volunteer, going into the local jail weekly to help with the Literacy program.
Yesterday, I visited our offices and had an opportunity to reconnect with a client from Literacy who was recently released. Her family had finally scraped together her bond. She had been jailed and held for the past six months without formal charges and without legal counsel. Just prior to release, she was given a court appointed attorney who was a civil lawyer, unversed in criminal law. Unfortunately, this isn’t a unique situation. Louisiana’s legal and penal systems are broken.
I’d like to state: not everyone in jail is guilty no matter what the news reports. If you don’t have the cash to hire a lawyer, it’s a maze of injustice. The system is set up for the poor to fail and be jailed on technicalities.
Failure to appear - but the court date was changed and you weren't contacted.
No excuse, show up to court or you’re in violation.
A bench warrant is issued for your arrest.
Can’t afford $75 per month Probation costs because you can’t get a job.
No excuse, write a warrant.
No wonder Louisiana has the HIGHEST rate of incarceration in the world.
If you're fortunate enough to have money – It’s a good-ol’-boy system with plenty of hoops that only a speaker of legalese can maneuver. There’s no such thing as innocent until proven guilty.
I’ve mentored women who sat on the inside for months even years, worrying about their parent’s health or children’s welfare with no solid legal information coming from their appointed attorneys until just days before trial. The court system is out of step with the twenty-first century and unwilling or able to spend revenue to update and link computer systems. The misspelling of a name can leave someone in jail until a family member straightens out the error.
Public defenders are assigned hundreds of cases each. They end up working with the D.A. in order to push cases through the courts. To save political face the system offers the jail-weary a plea bargain for time served. Men and women reach for the straw that’s offered desperate to get out, leaving the guilty as well as the innocent a record that haunts them, a ghost on every job and apartment application.
Society has turned a blind eye. Few will hire someone with a record. Gripped by media driven fear, we pass mileage for more deputies, more equipment, and more jail space, when we need justice with grace. Precious dollars spent on education and public programs to enrich life would offer encouragement, rather than a slap at every right turn. We need change. I don’t know the answers, but I know God is just.
What’s your experience?