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How America's Criminal Justice System Traps Low-Level Offenders

I've seen firsthand how the system makes it difficult for jail inmates who have committed minor crimes to get out and stay out of a cell.

by Kenneth Rosen
Aug 3 2015, 4:00am

Photo via Flickr user my_southborough

As I sat across from the correctional officer, I wondered if I'd been granted a bond. I was being processed for general population at the Chatham County Detention Center in Savannah, Georgia, and worried I wouldn't be going home any time soon.

The fear came divided: Would I be granted a bond, and if I was, could I afford to pay for my bail? This wasn't my first time in trouble—my youth had been turbulent at best. But this trouble was more recent, more serious, and nothing could shake the trembling fear inside me, the uneasy terror that alights behind bars.

Jail is a difficult place at the best of times, and a torture in hours like these when freedom hangs in the balance. Yet unlike the many other men in with me, my gravest concern was really whether bail had been set at all. Under our identical green jumpsuits, I carried a privilege unimaginable to most of them: the confidence that so long as an amount was set, my family would find some way to pay it.

When New York City announced last month that it was eliminating bail requirements for some low-level offenders, I was reminded of these feelings. I was also tempted to throw a victorious fist skyward. More of the incarcerated people who pose no threat to society or the communities in which they live might now have a chance at freedom, without the stress and fear that comes with bail and bond treatments. But the proposed reforms come after several long years of prison and criminal justice reform kerfuffles—federal, state, and local—that have cast a spotlight on a system that is broken well beyond its bail requirements.

I've seen those flaws first-hand.

The city's changes are, I hope, just the beginning of a fundamental overhaul of our ailing criminal justice system. The measures will take years to implement and only provide, at best, assistance in the beginning of a person's legal battles—which aren't limited to bail and population control at city jails, but also include reentry and release programs for the low-level offenders these programs target.

The new bail requirements program is expected to cost nearly $18 million. As VICE reported, 16,000 New Yorkers were unable to pay the minimum 10 percent of bails set at $2,000 or less in 2013, landing many of them in the hellscape that is Rikers Island. City Council data estimated that in the same year, more than 6,000 people couldn't make bail payments ranging between $20 and $500. In the most recent city budget passed in June, a bail fund of $1.4 million was set aside to help those facing bail under $2,000; the savings, when measured against the average $450-a-day cost to house an inmate, are poised to be tremendous.

"We have heard too many heartbreaking stories of the long-term, debilitating consequences of a short stay on Rikers Island," NYC City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said in a statement to VICE. "And there is growing consensus across the city and that nation that we need comprehensive criminal justice reform—and we need it now."

Simple crimes like minor possession of a controlled substance, reckless endangerment, and shoplifting—men and women incarcerated on these charges that sometimes amount to bails set as low as $150 often cannot make the payment and find themselves stuck behind bars, waiting. Simply waiting.

But even after the bail hearing and bond issuance, low-level offenders face plenty of problems.

JoAnne Page, the chief executive officer of the Fortune Society—a group that helps former inmates reacclimatize to the outside world through job training and other assisted-living initiatives—is frustrated with programs that cater to those freed, out on bail or full release, working to get their lives in order.

"When people get out of jail, get out of prison, they often end up having to pay for their supervision, and pay court costs, and pay for the cost of their incarceration," she said in an interview earlier this year. "These are people who are lucky if they're making minimum wage."

Recidivism data, though widely disputed and rarely concrete because of fluctuating criteria for what constitutes recidivism, is no more encouraging.

"When we talk about New York, what I think is so telling, is that of that 40 percent recidivism rate, only about a quarter of it is for convictions of a significant new crime," Page said, adding that many so-called recidivist crimes are technical violations such as missing report dates for parolees or having unclean urine.

Susan Gottesfeld, associate executive director of the Osborne Association—another reentry and prison reform program—told me that one of the barriers faced by reentry programs, including her own agency, is a paucity of funds for host programs to serve those leaving incarceration with or without bail troubles.

"There's not sufficient discharge planning and reentry case management systems to get them reconnected," she said.

In the past year, we've seen a lot of good come from extensive coverage and muckraking not just in New York, but across the nation. President Obama is offered clemency to 46 nonviolent federal prisoners convicted of drug crimes. But in 2013, federal inmates numbered about 216,000 and prisoners in state facilities amounted to more than 1.3 million.

Back in Georgia, a young black college student attending classes at Armstrong Atlantic University in Savannah had been stopped with friends while driving around the night before we met. When his bail was set, he called his mother from the jail phone, hopeful at first. Then his demeanor changed. No one, not even friends, could get him the $100 or so he needed to be released.

"I'll just stick around, so I can get time served," he told me.

Resigned to the fact that there was little for them to do other than wait, that's what many people I've met inside choose to do, knowing they have so few options. While I waited for a next-day bond hearing, they would be waiting for weeks or months just to get the chance to see a judge in person, for a trial that might never come. From there, it was anyone's guess how long they'd stay if family or friends couldn't raise the money necessary for a release.

That day in my cell in Georgia, I waited longer, anticipating general population, somewhere I never thought I'd find myself. I remembered a story I read in the New Yorker about a young black man from the Bronx named Kalief Browder. At 16, he was admitted to Rikers Island, facing a charges for a crime he insisted he didn't commit, waiting more than 1,000 days for a trial that would never come. The young man attending Armstrong wasn't much older.

As I made my way out of the jail that day, inmates shouted at me from their cells, heckling and slamming their fists against unmovable retention walls. They were asking me if I'd been let out. Of course he had, someone said from a distant cell somewhere. He's white. I am.

It's a devastating blow when you realize that most of these offenders had been caught with marijuana, or spice, or prescription pills that weren't their own. They were kind at first. It wasn't hard to see those first-time jailees changing the closer they came to general population. They were entering a different kind of game. We are forced to change and adapt, and there is no feeling worse, more damning, than feeling helpless.

I reached the sidewalk and vowed to start anew. I had no choice. Any stint changes a man. I thought back to Browder, how he was finally released—how he tried to commit suicide more than once inside, and more than once outside. The nooses never held, until one did.

Browder's family couldn't afford the freedom to wait until the dust of due process settled. When he finally left Rikers, it refused to leave him. He stepped out into freedom, three years wasted on a charge that never amounted to a conviction—a teenager still, a boy no longer.

My only hope is that what the city of New York is doing in leading the fight for criminal justice reform will echo in jails like the one I briefly, regretfully, called home in Georgia.

Kenneth Rosen has written a memoir about his time spent at three at-risk youth residential treatment centers, all of which are now shuttered. Follow him on Twitter or contact his literary agent.

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