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-The Five Spot

Thursday, January 17, 2008

from the belly of the beast

imagine a large room, well-lit but dank, heavy with the misery of those around you. black men and women, ranging in age from the older gentleman with hair graying at his temples to the young woman with the baby dreadlocks crowning her defiant face as she glances around the room, each one seated, some slumped in mix-match plastic chairs. they are all clad in the obligatory orange jumpsuits subdivided into pairs not necessarily partners in crime or friends from around the way but temporarily shackled together, cleaved at the ankles as they await their fate (for the day).

what will be the price on their heads today? how much will their families attempt to scrap together in order to bail them out? what will freedom, even home-monitored freedom, cost today? what will the man do, as he sits in the stately, oak paneled room across town, peering through the peculiar apparatus inserting an ironic touch of technology into this rustic room that looks like the inside of an empty pool or an elementary school cafeteria. if you peer close enough and pay attention to the sheriff in green keeping watch from the back of the room, you'll learn that it used to be the place where police line-ups were conducted. this place, long forgotten after that bitch katrina laid bare the federal government's engineering inadequacies, has been revived.

welcome to bail hearings in orleans parish.

where the magistrate's only link to those whose bail he must determine is a video camera and a flat screen TV up front. a substitute for bringing the accused into the judge's actual presence, lauded for its ability to promote judicial economy and eliminate the supposed inefficiencies of having those whose lives you are so deeply impacting appear before you in real life, real time.

this is how they do it down in the big easy. how they've been doing it for years. the lady sitting at the judge's right hand calls a name. the accused stands. his charges are read. marijuana first. crime against nature. any priors? 96. armed robbery. the judge doesn't miss a best. Bail is set at 5000.

there is no space for the defense attorney to plead her client's case. no regard for the statutory bail factors. the likelihood that he'll return to court for his next appearance. and if one dares to interject, a swift rebuke is sure to follow.

once the spectacle is over, all names having been read, prices set, the men and women in orange are trotted back to their cells to await the next stop on the criminal justice train (wreck).

this image sits with me. reminds me that there are places in this country, the land of the free where every man and woman has certain inalienable rights, that this is the level of criminal (in)justice you receive. sits with me as the election churns on, candidates speak endlessly about their experience in making change, the change they hope to inspire, the change they've spent their life working for. the trail each one is trying to blaze without actually acknowledging that they are this or that, that they don't represent this or that, when we all can see that they are and that they do. no matter who becomes president shit won't change in orleans parish just because [name your favorite candidate] took office. cause these poor people aren't the middle class that so desperately needs preservin' or the rich folks who are searchin' for the tax breaks. talk to these people about the finding jobs that will pay a respectable wage from which taxes can be taken out.

who panders to these people? who sits with them and hears their stories? who truly listens and forces that judge in the little box to consider the bail factors?

who indeed....


Amaretto said...

Waaaait! Is this for real?! How can this even be legal? I'm not the lawyer you are but doesn't everyone have the right to defend themselves?

This made me think of a book my uncle was telling me about, I can't recall the title, but the premise was the majority (government) was wondering what they were going to do with a large group of people who were no longer of any use (ie the end of slavery). The majority recognized that the group could be powerful if united and they were going to do anything to keep that from happening.

It just seems that the "That Be's" will try to get away with anything if they can, especially towards the po and struggling; they are the ones always left in the aftermath wondering what the heck "just" happened, even if the injustice has been going on for decades.

Bellini said...

Katrina exposed everything that is wrong with this country: white folks and black folks

sidenote: my brother has been living down there since undergrad and he's going to law school and i can't help but wonder how the Big' Easy has influcenced his judgments about poverty and blackness

mint julep said...

@amaretto, courts can differ on when the right to counsel attaches and at this stage, people may not have been arraigned (formally charged), sometimes there is only an accusation so there is some wiggle room. it's been progress just getting counsel at these bail hearings.

@bellini, yes having been down there a couple times since the storm (this last time for an interview) i could see how your brother would be affected. we need more young black males (and females) willing to pass up the dollars and commit themselves to the work.

lord hannibal said...

What's the alternative? I concede that what you've described is less than ideal, but to the extent that the people who find themselves in this position are guilty of a crime, what do they deserve?

I hate to sound callous but most crimes have victims. Who is thinking about them?

mint julep said...

the state (i.e. the district attorney/prosecutor) is thinking about the victims. they represent the victims' interests and protect our collective right to be free from crime. the victims are very well taken care of, as they should be.

the 6th amendment guarantees us the right to counsel in fed criminal prosecutions (extended to the states by the 14th amendment). that's the constitutional right at stake here, whether an individual is guilty or not. "they" deserve competent legal counsel to go up against the powerful & historically racist criminal justice system. if you were a poor black man who maybe even had indeed done what they accused you of doing, wouldn't you want someone to represent you against such a system, for example to advise you against taking a plea grossly disproportionate to the crime charged? or maybe only folks with money deserve that much.

lord hannibal said...

The sad fact is that we don't all get what we deserve. But it's difficult for me to feel much in the way of sympathy for those who are incarcerated and actually guilty of the crime(s) for which they've been charged.

Even people with no money can obey the law, you know.