Smile Politely

Where the criminal justice system is taking us: Part 1

This hypothetical imagines you are a minimum-wage worker with a car and an apartment. You live by yourself and take care of yourself. The hypothetical imagines a worse-case scenario but is based on a collage of real events that have happened at various times over the years to the predominant demographic of those prosecuted in Champaign County.

Suddenly, the white women of the University of Illinois campus say “enough is enough.” Some serial rapes in your neck of the woods has been going unchecked, and the ladies demand police do something about finding this guy. To accommodate the public pressure, police set up a roadside check in your area and as you are coming home, you are stopped and your DNA is demanded. Police just want to wipe a quick swab out of your mouth and get all your personal information and then you can be on your way.

You say you are innocent and needn’t be searched like that. Do you consent to the DNA collection or not?

You give a seemingly intelligent answer to the officer that officers have no probable cause, or reasonable suspicion (wrong, the officers think, you match the race in the description given by the victims,) and therefore any consent to the swab and offering of personal information would be a violation of your 4th Amendment right to an unwarranted search, and by compelling you to give physical evidence it is a violation of your 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination. The officer, knowing the assistant state’s attorneys have his back, says f— you, you are now under arrest for a class 4 felony of Obstructing Justice by concealing physical evidence to hinder the possible apprehension of a possible rapist, (possibly you) and you are also under arrest for two Class A Misdemeanors of Resisting A Peace Officer. Count One will be for refusing to provide your information, and Count Two will be for refusing to provide the swab. Now don’t resist the officer, right? Things could get real violent in a hurry if you do, so you intelligently submit to arrest, certain that this will be cleared up in court within seconds. Afterall, the Constitution is on your side, right?

You are hauled to jail, and your car is impounded for an extra $500 on top of the $50.00 a day the towing company will charge to store your car. (You committed a felony while using your car, so the City of Champaign takes an extra $500.)

Surprise! Arraignment court isn’t until tomorrow. Because you won’t be at work like you’re supposed to next morning, you will lose your job. So you sit among who knows who, in a cold holding cell with no blanket or bed and wait until tomorrow to surely be released. If the guards have time and are willing, you might be slipped a less-than $3.00 tray of “food,” high in sugars and salts, portions limited, quality is dubious at best- that is, if one of the crazy people in your cell don’t take your tray from you because they are hungry.

The next morning, your name is called out by a guard and you are led to a small room with a video screen. On the screen is a well dressed female just out of college who introduces herself as the public defender this morning. You begin to tell her the story of violated constitutional rights but, she interrupts you, and says she is only collecting your information and she has not been assigned to your case. She is just here to determine how much bond you can afford. You tell her you work a minimum wage job and you haven’t much savings. You fear you may lose your job. She is polite and tries to assure you her office will do all it can to keep your bond low. You are dismissed and sent back to the holding cell.

Arraignment time comes and you are led to, not the courthouse, but a side room with about 15 other people and sat down to wait your turn for your name to be called on the overhead screen above. You are given a form to fill out to declare what assets and income you do have. The video show begins and you wait your turn. The judge calls your case and the prosecutor reads off the charges against you at which time you interject to say at the screen you are innocent and that the officer’s demands were unconstitutional. The judge interrupts you vigorously, and tells you to shut the hell up, now is not the time for a defense. Another word, and you will have an additional charge of contempt of court. Seems like you have an attitude. The judge decides to set your bond at $50,000. If you want out of the cold county jail, you will need $5,000 dollars cash, money order or on a debit card that you don’t have. You will have to stay in the county jail to await trial.

You are “dressed out,” by a shower with lice chemical poured in your hair and put in a jumper of black and white stripes with boxers and socks. You are given spongy shoes to wear and led to your pod where you will wait for your trial. You are given a blanket and ushered into your pod. 12-20 other men look at you and inevitably comes the cry, “New meat!” Several men approach you to ask what you are in for, and you tell them; but you say it’s not fair, and you will be suing them all for sure. Who’s your lawyer they want to know. You tell them you haven’t met your lawyer. Are you going to be hiring one? No you say, you can’t afford one. They scowl with laughter. Good luck with your Supreme Court case there, genius, they mock.

“You got any money on the books?” they ask. No. Just a few dollars out of your wallet. You’re of no use to them. They return to the television or card game. Or so it seems. Because this is your first time in jail, you are an idiot and what you don’t know is that among your new friends is a snitch working for the police. You may be of use to him later.

You are housed with mostly African-Americans, a few non-english speaking hispanics and a few white guys. They are from poor working families and most have little education, barely graduating from high school. The talk around you is mostly about their cases, their lawyers, sometimes their family and friends, women, women, sex, women, sex and getting high and getting drunk and getting into fights. They call each other by nicknames and you notice they have cliques according to neighborhood and familiarity within the institution of jail. There is a constant card game of spades. The television is on all day long. Some write letters to girlfriends and mothers, pleading for money for commissary and promises to do better when they get out- or pleas to contact lawyers to help them get out. Some of the guys do sit-ups and push-ups, especially if they suspect they will be going to the penitentiary.

The television is set to crap. Most wanted on the television is music videos where rap songs and scantily clad girls can be mused over. Violent cop shows are the next favorite, but usually it’s inane game shows bestowing free goodies to lucky contestants, soap operas fretting over rich white people’s problems, and bubble-headed news anchors reporting the latest waste of money the politicians are planning. All want to see the newspaper to see who’s coming in next. A few have secured books out of a prison “library” once a week, and they read occasionally when they don’t want to be bothered with the endless discussion of sex, women, sex, and sex.

The arrival of food trays helps to tell time along with the television news set for 6:00 p.m. The food is incredibly juvenile, a standard few steps lower than you remembered in grade school. Once a week, mail is delivered to inmates, and you get a letter from your aged mom who wishes you the best but there’s nothing she can do financially now in the way of a lawyer. She’ll see if someone can give her a ride to visit you while you are in jail. She’s afraid there is nothing she can do about your car either.

The overall experience is a swing between irritation when one of the guys is loud-talking nonsense or the television is set to something extra stupid; and the idle boredom of just waiting on a food tray to relieve the tediousness. Sleep is the most precious commodity in the place, since it’s up to your mind to at least dream of having any kind of life. Morning brings the same bitter disappointment that nothing dreamed was real and you are still here. This is human warehousing at its most minimal cost-efficient. Animals in zoos have better accommodations and regard for their needs.

On Sundays, a few of the guys go to church. A volunteer comes in with bibles and a message for the week. Most go just to get off the block. Others attend a once-a-week hour session with the representative from Alcoholics Anonymous or another session with the representative from Narcotics Anonymous. Other than those three options, you sit on the pod everyday, watching television or playing spades if you’re willing to gamble a food tray away.

You haven’t talked to your public defender but when the weeks pass, you finally have a pre-trial hearing. You are summoned to the front of the pod where a deputy chains you up in shackles, by the hands and feet. You are then shackled to the group of inmates who have court hearings too. Were you to decide to escape, you would have to do it together. All of you are placed in a van. You drive to the courthouse and out the windows you notice trees and real air like never before. You enter the courthouse through a garage, and all of you walk into an elevator and are taken up to a courtroom where you are still shackled by the wrists and ankles, dressed in a guilt-looking jail jumpsuit. No one but onlookers are in the courtroom and a few bailiffs. Everyone looks at you like you are a disfigured monster. The presumption of innocence is completely gone in this staging of the play.

Another well dressed female just out of college with a stack of manilla folders begins to go down the line of inmates telling each of you the same thing. She introduces herself as the public defender for this morning, though she isn’t sure she’ll be actually handling your case, but will be this morning, and that today will just be a quick status hearing. The case will likely be continued for a later trial date. You would like to discuss the constitutional issues to be raised and have your case dismissed. She apologizes that all today will be is a status hearing and she can’t argue any issues until she has been assigned to your case, which hasn’t happened yet. Suddenly the judge shows up and everyone is commanded to stand at attention. The judge tells everyone to sit back down and he begins asking for the manilla folders that are those of defendants still in custody to be handled first. Like ducks in a row, everyone is re-read their charges and the same thing is said by both the prosecutor and the public defender, that this is a case to be continued and set for possible trial. Unbeknownst to you, the motion for a continuance has been credited to the defense, and you have just lost your right to a speedy trial within the 120-day time limit. Now the state has all the time it wants to decide your case.

The entire time with the judge and your fellow inmates took about a half-hour to set new pre-trial dates for the following month for each of you. When your public defender passes by again, you ask, does that mean you’ll have to wait another month to talk to a lawyer? She whispers someone will be in touch with you soon. That’s sort of a relief. Sounds like maybe the public defender’s office has heard of your case and you will soon be rescued from this nightmare. Returning to the elevator some of the guys wonder if they’ll be served lunch at the courthouse because they don’t want to miss lunch. Somebody jokes they wish that public defender was for lunch. The conversation devolves into descriptions of sexual techniques with a public defender on a desk in front of bailiffs and judges. A vigorous debate is had over whether her dress and choice of profession indicates whether or not she wants it too.

Back to the jail you go to wait more weeks. Some of your acquaintances on the cell block become people you can count on to be normal, sociable, and once in a while, make you laugh. That’s helpful, as is your new-found interest in following a soap opera on television that passes the time. Your mother is faithful to write but as yet, hasn’t made the trek to the jail to see you. You were able to use your last monies to buy a toothbrush, toothpaste, a comb, and some shampoo, but now you have to rely on state-supplied toiletries when it comes to soap and shampoo. Your hair is growing longer than usual and your beard is getting fuller by the day. It is an un-manicured thing that starts from your neck, and looks like the beard of a homeless alcoholic.

Attending the invite from the volunteers who run the “library,” (the “library” consists of a rolling cart of books you can pick through for a half-hour,) you now have a book to read in your cell. You’ve taken to going to church because the short time off the pod breaks up the monotony and so you look over the bible now and then too. You feel much of the talk to repent and be forgiven does not apply to you. You haven’t done anything wrong but refused to be searched by the police. What you’d like to read is the applicable laws to get your case thrown out, but there is no “law library,” and “working” on your case is regulated to cheap advice from cellies who know about as much as you do. They assure you that since this is your first offense, you’re sure to get probation and you’ll be out soon. “What offense?” you think to yourself. You’re hopeful that at the very least this will be over in 120 days or less. The damage has been done, however. You imagine you’ve lost your job and car, and by now, probably your apartment with everything in it…

Part two of three will run this Thursday, March 26th.

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