It is commonly known that gold is denser than silver. That means that when weighed against one another in similar amounts of mass gold will always weigh more. Silver, on the other hand, is denser than copper. So what we know is that gold will always tip the scale against silver and silver against copper. So it is in the American justice system that the scales will always be tipped in favor of the rich.
There are, I suggest, too few places where this is truer than in the American jail and in the American courtroom. When first arrested, as discussed in the previous post, an individual is by law presumed innocent until proven guilty. Despite this, the individual is punished through a humiliating entry process from the waiting room all the way into a jail cell. There, they are forced remain away from loved ones and away from jobs they may lose, until they are to face trial. Why? Because their families cannot afford the price of bail.
The system of bail was designed as a way to guarantee that a person suspected of a crime and to face trial for it would not skip town before their day in court. It would, however, allow the person, if they or their families are well off enough, to pay to escape the torment of remaining in a prison cell. It also allowed the accused to return to work and family responsibilities as well as providing them the flexibility and freedom needed to adequately prepare for a trial. The bail is generally set by the recommendation of a prosecutor. The defense attorney may request a lower bail but the judge will almost always defer to the prosecutor, seeming to assume there will be no bias for the prosecutor who is paid to convict people.
People who are in jail, especially for the first time will find it a shocking and horrific experience. They will want to get out as soon as possible. If the system doesn’t break you, someone or something there will. The prosecutor knows this and will work with the defense attorney to offer a speedy resolution in the form of a plea deal. If they take the plea deal and admit their “guilt” they will be able to tremendously reduce the time they are forced to remain in prison or perhaps even escape it altogether. If they refuse they will receive the right to a trial to prove their innocence, which they are entitled to, but may remain behind bars for much longer if they fail to make their case. To plead “Not Guilty” to an American judge is nothing short of a game of Russian Roulette. This is especially true for the poorest Americans who can neither afford bail nor a decent attorney.
Consider the case of Kalief Browder, who when arrested at the age of sixteen for a crime he was never convicted of, defiantly refused to accept any deal offered by the prosecution. He refused, he said, to admit to something he knew he didn’t do. Not only that but there was no case. What little evidence could be presented was self-contradicting, and many critics say, completely unreliable from conflicting police reports to inconsistent witness testimony. The prosecution had no case beyond what could easily be dismissed as circumstantial.
For his attempts to clear his name, and because his family could not post bail (at least in time for it to be frozen with no reason or explanation) he was punished with nearly three years in one of New York City’s most dangerous adult prisons on Rikers Island, an experience from which he would return physically and psychologically scarred for life. Over the course of that nearly three years, he was given 11 court dates for the “speedy” trial prescribed by the United States Constitution. Every trial was brushed aside when each date came with no sufficient cause or explanation, except that it came with the promise that if he but confessed he would be free.
Eventually, the charges were dropped and he was released, but all that had happened to him on Rikers Island could never be undone. He ended his life on the second attempt a few years later.
Not all cases are as extreme as Browder’s, but innocent prisoners across the nation continue to suffer this ordeal. It very much resembles olden times when the accused witch would rot in a dungeon to be tortured until at last, she confessed. Then she could be burned justly.
“Surely the innocent would never offer a guilty plea to something they didn’t do!” said a lie as old as ancient tyrants.
Even so, there are those who make it to trial through perseverance. Despite the punishments received, they remain determined to clear their name, a right they are entitled to according to the supreme law of the land. Yet even they face yet another hurdle, for few defendants can prove their innocence without the money for a good attorney.