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A Tragedy in the Capital

The attitude that led a judge to send a helpless, wheelchair-bound young man, who had hurt no one, to jail, is a barbaric one that our society desperately needs to leave behind.
 
 
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The District of Columbia saw a tragedy last week. Jonathan Magbie, a 27-year-old quadriplegic medical marijuana patient, died while under the care of the D.C. court and jail. Magbie had been arrested for marijuana possession, and Judge Judith Retchin sentenced him to 10 days in jail, despite recommendations from officials against it. Her reason? There was a loaded gun in the car with him.

But Magbie didn't use the gun on anyone. And now I've learned it wasn't even his.

Things went haywire immediately after Magbie entered custody. He wound up getting sent back and forth between the jail and the hospital. His mother was not allowed to bring him his ventilator in jail, for two days. By the time the jail finally agreed to it, it was too late.

I don't believe that any of the officials involved in this debacle wanted what happened to happen. Some combination of incompetence and/or overloading of the system and/or poorly crafted regulations or procedures all combined to end Jonathan Magbie's life. But that doesn't mean there's no one to blame.

Surely Judge Retchin shares the blame. According to the Washington Post article, she is known for harsh sentences. In a nation with two million prisoners, whose incarceration rate has been criticized by prominent human rights organizations, such an impulse is part of the problem. The attitude that drove her to send a helpless, wheelchair-bound young man, who had hurt no one, to jail, is a barbaric one that our society desperately needs to leave behind. And knowing how dangerous the jails can be, even for the healthy and strong, it was especially reckless. If she didn't understand that, it is to her discredit.

Others are to blame too. Why did the hospital send Magbie back to the jail and refuse to take him back? Where did the miscommunications take place in the court and jail? The more basic truth, though, is that gulags breed carelessness and error.

It is too late to save Jonathan Magbie – the decision-makers who needed to do that didn't try hard enough. But this sad episode must not be allowed to go gently into the night. Magbie and his family deserve a full accounting, and a reflection on the sad state of criminal justice in this country is long overdue. Let it start here.

David Borden is executive director of DRCnet.