Like a good horror story? Try this one on for size, since some variation of it could befall pretty much anyone of us at one time or another. You’re out for a ride on a balmy spring Sunday afternoon and stop in at the local biker bar where a big get-together is going on. You’ve got a family, a job, your bike, and—oops—a Swiss Army Knife, which is technically a weapon, though it stretches the definition of the term. Somewhere on the premises a commotion starts up, shots are fired, and you find yourself suddenly being rousted by a cop, frisked, zip-tied and sitting cross-legged in the parking lot awaiting your turn for a ride to the pokey in one of a fleet of paddy wagons. Once there you’re informed that you’ve been arrested for participating in an “organized criminal activity” because of your mere presence at the bar where the melee erupted. That particular crime is almost laughably vague, but it carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. Oh, and your bail is set at one million dollars.
That, as you all know by now, is a short synopsis of what occurred in Waco, Texas, on May 17. And you’re not alone in your Kafkaesque plight. Besides you, 176 others have been hauled in and levied with matching million dollar bails (which, remarkably, two of the Waco arrestees managed to post). They say things are bigger in Texas, but even in Texas that bail amount raised eyebrows among the citizenry including seasoned prosecutors and jurists.
That’s just the beginning of the systematic abuse of the “presumed innocent” inmates.
Once at the Graybar Hotel, you get your phone call, but it’s on your dime, and it’s not a dime. It’s more like $10-$15 since the phone services of jails have been outsourced to private for-profit operations who took in $1.2 billion last year, mostly from those who can least afford it. (I wish I’d thought of that scam.)
So you call home and arrange for a lawyer to ask the court for a bail review because you can’t pony up a quick non refundable $100,000 to secure a bail bond. The lawyer’s retainer isn’t cheap either. Or refundable.
Three weeks pass with you sitting in stir; no formal charges have been filed, and bail reduction reviews have only just begun. You manage to get yours knocked down to $200,000 and say good bye to your nest egg—and probably your bike, too, and maybe your home since in all likelihood you don’t have a job anymore.
And since you have yet to be charged with a crime, you can’t cut a plea bargain, and even if you could you would have to confess to a felony and suffer all that goes with that on your record—including the difficulty you face in getting another job except, maybe, at a car wash or mopping floors at a Waffle House. To compound the indignity, your mugshot has been flashed all over the Internet for easy access to anyone checking into your past for whatever reason.
As part of your bail arrangement you discover that you’re expected to observe a curfew and wear an ankle bracelet monitor (as 123 of the Waco defendants are experiencing). That bracelet runs $355 initially, with a $255 per month monitoring fee (you could lease a Lexus for that), and requires you to sit attached to a 6-foot tether for two hours twice a day to charge the device which puts a further crimp in any employment seeking plans you may have. You could end up wearing and paying for that bracelet for a year or two or more while awaiting trial.
It’s estimated that nearly two thirds of county jail inmates in this country are there awaiting trial, doing time without being convicted of diddly. The unkindest cut of all, is that in many instances, once the inmate has been to trial and convicted, the penalty for the crime falls far short of the time already served and the money already squandered. If you’re found innocent, it’s a hollow formality at that point since you’ve already been well and truly punished regardless, and left with nothing but a life in shambles and a steep mountain to climb to salvage it.
The abuse of the modern bail system has increasingly come under fire as nothing more than a means of punishment before conviction, rather than a means of assuring that the individual will show up at their court hearing, and it’s hard not to see it that way. The recent tragedy involving the Rikers Island jail in New York put the travesty on the front pages. There, a 16-year-old youth was incarcerated for three years, two of them in solitary confinement, before being released without ever going to trial. But the damage was done and he committed suicide at 19. A hue and cry ensued—like it’s starting to ensue in Texas, where charges have yet to be filed, evidence has yet to be produced, and a grand jury being empaneled to look into that incident as well as others has named a police detective as the foreman.
No trial dates are in the offing, but it scarcely matters since the 177 defendants have pretty much already been convicted of what the late, great Pulitzer Prize-winning Chicago columnist Mike Royko described as the crime of, “Disturbing the police.”
It’s all right here in the diaries…