As with many things, I’m pressed for time, although things are not quite so unrelenting-task-grim as they have been these past few months. For example, last night featured dinner at a Hatian place in South Beach called Tap Tap. It’s worth the visit. After dinner I strolled around South Beach with a fellow PD (moniker forthcoming) and we chatted about any number of things as I got the tour.
South Beach is fun. Populated by backless dresses and small accessory dogs, it’s rich and venal, which begs contrast to the neighborhood I live in, Overtown. Not that I feel I really “live in” the neighborhood per se. I’m in a condo on the edge of the more depressed area, and thus am part of the gentrifying forces. I wish there was more local business/employment for me to route my wages though, but there’s not really even that.
Anyway, all professions have their cants, their specialized tongues. Usually the common person is silent before them – who wants to ask stupid questions like “what does that noun/phrase you just used *mean*?” One of the things I want to observe is how legal language and concepts interact with juries. Hopefully I will be in front of 3 person misdemeanor juries fairly soon.
Actually, let me take a moment to clarify something. I want the jury experience. I want to do well for my clients. But if before each trial, the magic trial-fairy were to appear to me and offer me a plea that was better than the trial outcome, I would *always* recommend my client choose the plea, no matter how much it might set me back developmentally as a trial lawyer. I realize in the real world you don’t get to make recommendations to your client from that kind of hypothetically perfect knowledge of what a trial outcome would actually be. I just wanted to be clear that I view the vocation as a service to others, not as a means to accrue skills, and hopefully my client counseling will always reflect that.
So, back to legal vocabulary. I hear ‘loss of liberty’ used in the courthouse. I’ve used it myself. But I often wonder if someone sitting in the jury box really knows what that means, what the “loss of liberty” truly costs a person.
Apropos of Skelly’s quote below, I often wonder if they know what the accused may have endured, just to get to this point. To take a step back, here’s a quick overview of the “cost” of a criminal accusation (just the accusation, not a conviction). Please bear in mind this is a general thumbnail, given the kinds of crimes people are accused of, and the local rules, there can be greater or lesser costs.
When someone is merely accused of a crime, costs instantly attach.
First, the accused bears some social burden which is recognized in our basic formalities. One must disclose if one is facing criminal charges to certain entities. In some cases, even if you’re found “not guilty” or the state drops the charges, you will *still* have to disclose the arrest to certain employers, *even if* the record is “sealed.” In the internet age, you’re one google search away from someone finding out you’ve had “a brush” with the law.
Second, the accused will probably bear a burden of anxiety/stress as well – should the charge be proven, their life may well become derailed. Any future plans must be reconsidered, and some, should certain charges be proven, will simply be precluded. Say, for example, joining the military to “straighten one’s self out.”
Third, the accused might be held in jail before the trial actually happens. Sometimes the accused are released on their own recognizance (promise to return), sometimes into supervised programs, sometimes bail is required. (There are different types of bail/bonding, but basically the accused might have to pay money to be allowed out of jail, prior to their trial.)
Now if you’re held before trial and can’t get out on bail, you’d better pray that you’ve got an understanding employer, an understanding landlord, and good friends who can get your stuff into storage and shut off your electric bill. Good luck with those car payments also.
Casual readers, please think about calling your boss collect and saying – “Hey, I was in this situation last night with an old friend from High School who is a bit of a head-case. Anyway, the upshot is that I’m in jail pending trial and I may be here for anywhere up to 6 months, depending on how the attorneys develop the case.” Seriously.
But the good news is you’re innocent until proven guilty. I mean, we haven’t really started yet.
So - the “loss of liberty.” “Liberty” itself sounds grand – an old word on an old document. And surely the “loss of liberty” must be simply getting locked up for a bad thing you’ve done; you do your time, you come out, having paid your cost to society, and things are squared off.
Not really. It’s a lot stickier than that.
First off, it’s true you do the time. But you do it in cramped, smelly, dangerous conditions, surrounded by desperate guys. Personally, I have to say I don’t like large groups of guys. Be they found in locker rooms, sporting areas, or bars, large groups of guys often create trouble. But that’s an aside. Your food will stink. You’ll have little contact with those you love. Your medical conditions might go untreated or be under-treated. You’ll have no privacy. I’m sure, if you imagine, really imagine, what that must be like, you’ll see it’s not as clean or simple sounding as “a loss of liberty.”
The physical reality of incarceration is a far more profound thing than “a loss of privileges” or “a loss of enjoyments.” You don’t end up in some “neutral” space where your life is put on hold, where you miss television episodes and shopping at the mall, where you can spend time thinking about what you’ve done wrong.
Incarceration goes *beyond* having someone else telling you how to run life for awhile. It’s the subjugation of one’s self in a very artificial and negative environment – the kind of environment no one would choose for themselves to be in, the kind of environment that will probably *not* make you a better person, and will probably actually scar and burden you when you are eventually released.
Second, contrasted to the environment you’re hopefully enduring, there’s the cost of what you’re missing. While you are incarcerated, be it for a month or a year or five years, the world goes on.
All your outside relationships and possessions are subject to the whims of the world, and the longer you are in, the more you will lose. Apartment, house, car, job, friends, experiences. Your personal relationships will become attenuated or break. Think of all the things that have happened to you and your friends in the past 5 years. That’s what you’d be missing. Holidays, birthdays, marriages, deaths, funerals, births – and beyond that, the general tenor of life that all these “events” punctuate. You cannot help or care for your friends and family. You cannot use any of these tragic or joyous events to grow, to better yourself, to get things right, to take a step forward towards the kind of person you want to be. And that costs both yourself and everyone close to you.
If you have children, it’s doubly tragic. Your incarceration will affect them as much (or possibly more) than it will you. Who knows what kind of burdens *they* will bear from the experience? Who knows what doors will be shut for them? You know it’s not going to *help* them in any way.
Again, “loss of liberty” goes beyond simply “taking someone off the streets” – this is taking someone from their parent’s presence, from their children’s presence, from their most fundamental and essential community.
Lastly, there are post-release costs.
When you do finally get out, you’ll probably be subject to all kinds of restrictions. You may have to drug test, to report to someone, to register your address and give notice of your movements, to attend programs, to reapply for licenses (driver’s or otherwise). Failure to do these things will probably result in *more* time in prison.
Honestly, I’m an educated guy, and I, in college, with time on my hands and no job to work didn’t make *every single one* of the various appointments I scheduled when I was in school. Did you? (Stuff comes up.) It only takes one missed appointment for someone to be sent back in for more time. I’ve seen that happen.
Plus, post conviction, avenues will be excluded to you – some places won’t rent to you, hire you, or extend you credit. You’re fresh out, want to put your past behind you by getting a job and working hard? Good luck. You’ll be tagged as a criminal for the rest of your life. When you’re 80, trying to get into a nursing home, you’ll still have to note your convictions on your form.
I suspect “loss of liberty” will sound to some like “loss of library privilege” – but incarceration is something that runs deep into multiple lives.
A lot of you have expressed some positive sentiments toward me – basically because I’m forgoing a lot of money (legal wages) to work in a public defender’s office. I very much appreciate hearing that. (Although I don’t think it’s nearly as difficult or as noble as the things I’ve seen my client’s attempt.)
I only mention this because if you did want to act on those sentiments, and do something for me (and all of us, honestly), I’d ask you to have a short conversation with a friend or a co-worker about what it means to be locked up, if the debate should really be about how many years we give people for bad acts, or if there’s a better solution for us as a people.