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Woke up this morning thinking about a couple of young men who have spent the last two years in prison. Thinking about them undoubtedly because I listened to the president’s speech yesterday, the one about reforming the criminal justice system.
(Obama: “The United States is home to 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Think about that. Our incarceration rate is four times higher than China’s. We keep more people behind bars than the top 35 European countries combined. And it hasn’t always been the case — this huge explosion in incarceration rates. In 1980, there were 500,000 people behind bars in America — half a million people in 1980 … Today there are 2.2 million. It has quadrupled since 1980. Our prison population has doubled in the last two decades alone.”)
What would it be like to go from waking up in your bedroom at home, to waking up every morning in a cell surrounded by hardened criminals?
These two young men — teenagers when they were swept up — are innocent of any crime. Innocent, that is, until they are proven guilty.
And they have not been proven guilty because they have not been tried. They have not been brought before a jury of their peers. Whether, in the end, they will have had the speedy trial guaranteed to them by the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America is a question upon which you might have an opinion. Someday, that is, whenever they finally get their trial.
That their trial date has been pushed back and back and back is not a matter of opinion. It’s a fact. At whose request — district attorney’s or defense attorneys’ — I’m not sure. There is still no date for their trial, to my knowledge. The DA has decided to try half of the twelve defendants in the case next month, but these two young men are apparently not in that first group going to trial. If a recent news article is correct, at any rate.
Nor, obviously, have the two young men been released on bond. It’s not that their family couldn’t afford the bail amount set by the judge. No, it was denied altogether. I am led to understand that this is generally the case when the charges are so serious. (Though I’m also led to understand that one or more of the defendants were in fact released on bond. Could be wrong about that …)
Well, what are they charged with, exactly? Malice murder, aggravated assault, two counts of conspiracy to commit murder, violation of Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act and violation of Street Gang Terrorism and Prevention Act.
That sounds really bad, you’re thinking. Me too. Maybe they’ll be proven guilty of all those charges, along with the ten other defendants who were arrested two years ago.
Clearly, someone is guilty. After all, two men in a car were shot in the head. One of them died.
Yes, it’s certainly possible that an 18-year old with no criminal record, who knew that within weeks he would be going off to play football at a college in a city 85 miles away, joined a violent gang and conspired with his new gang family to murder someone.
It’s also possible, I suppose, in a different scenario, that he was a “member” of this gang, whatever that meant, whatever form that took, but did not conspire to commit any crime, even if the law says he must be held accountable for whatever crimes his gang has committed.
And in all fairness, it must also be said that the following is not impossible, either:
That the evidence for these young men’s gang membership and activity — young men who, after all, share a surname with, but are otherwise unrelated to, one of the six defendants that the DA has selected for the trial that is scheduled to begin early next month — may, in the end, strike a skeptical person as something short of rock solid.
Moreover, reasonable people will disagree about the significance of the fact that after two years in which, presumably, these two young men have had every opportunity to admit their guilt with respect to at least some of these charges, they clearly have refused to do so.
All this may seem to have nothing to do with your life. Or mine. We wake up in our own beds each morning, without the least worry that we might be caught up that day in something bigger than ourselves. That our lives might be changed in an instant.
And yet, how many times in my teaching career was I alone in my office at the college with a female student? How many times might this have happened:
My word against hers?
Would I have been locked in a jail cell for two years, denied bail, awaiting trial? Or is it simply impossible to imagine that a 54-year-old, upper-middle-class, college-educated white man with no criminal record would suffer that fate?
And if that is simply impossible to imagine, what are we doing? Can’t we — as President Obama believes — do better?
If it’s a funding problem — too few judges, too few public defenders — we should work together to fix that. If processing of nonviolent offenders is clogging up the system, we should work together to fix that. If repeat offenders demand an inordinate investment of the finite time and limited resources that are allocated to criminal justice, we should work together to fix that.
It’s been 800 years exactly since the right to a speedy trial came on the scene. 800 years.
The Magna Carta (A.D. 1215):
No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either justice or right.