Justice delayed -- and delayed and delayed

When pre-trial detention stretches on for weeks or months, a suspect's right to a "speedy and public trial" is undermined. In effect, a prison sentence is being served without the prisoner having been convicted.

David McNew/Reuters
Los Angeles police arrest a political protester outside a Citibank branch.

All of us go to court at some point, if only to fight a traffic ticket or do jury duty. In court, you can see an attorney eloquently pressing a point, a judge wisely guiding the judicial process, and “the people” rendering carefully considered justice.

That’s in the ideal world, the world of “Law & Order” and “Perry Mason.” Courthouses can also be dispiriting sinkholes where day after day lawyers, clerks, police, judges, parole officers, and social workers try to keep their heads up amid the wreckage wrought by violence, drugs, selfishness, and chronically bad choices. In a courthouse, humanity can too easily be reduced to perpetrators and victims. You can feel guilty just being there.

That’s why it is all the more tragic when someone innocent is sucked into “the system” and becomes its victim.

In a Monitor cover story, Katy Reckdahl examines one particular problem with the judicial system: pretrial detention. An arrest can occur for any number of reasons – from suspicion of involvement in a major crime to an infraction that edges just over the line from misdemeanor to felony. If an individual cannot raise the bail money, he or she can get stuck in jail. 

That wait can stretch for weeks or months as the case inches through a congested courthouse. In effect, imprisonment is taking place before the accused gets a fair trial.

There are half a million people in the United States in this predicament. Many of them, if eventually convicted, will already have served so much time in jail before their trials that they will not have to serve prison time. The tragedy is the innocent or those accused of small-time crime who get snarled in the system.

It is tempting to believe that an arrest is tantamount to a conviction, or to see bail as a form of punishment. Where there’s smoke, we often think, there’s fire. And there indeed are dangerous people who need to be detained to keep them from potentially harming others. But to keep someone locked up for an extended period simply because he or she cannot raise bail undermines the constitutional guarantee of a “speedy and public trial.”

Even when jail time is warranted, it seldom improves lives (see our May 21 cover story on the struggle inmates face after being released). At best, jail is an opportunity to change a life for the better. More often, the opposite occurs. That adds to the problem of pretrial detention the possibility that marginally bad behavior will become worse behind bars.

In the great prison movie “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994), the protagonist, Andy Dufresne, memorably remarks: “The funny thing is – on the outside, I was an honest man, straight as an arrow. I had to come to prison to be a crook.”

There are sincere people in and around the US criminal-justice system working on this. As you’ll see in our cover story, one promising approach is the supervised release of an arrested person after proper screening. As in most issues involving criminal justice, solutions aren’t always clear-cut. But the essence of the pretrial detention problem comes down to this comment from a specialist in Washington, D.C.: “Dangerous people get out of jail, and people who are not dangerous but don’t have the money stay in jail.” 

That doesn’t seem right. And it doesn’t seem beyond us to figure out how to reserve jail for the convicted.

John Yemma is editor of the Monitor.

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