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Pretrial Lock Up

Thousands of prisoners languish in jail for months, even years, before they are tried.
 
 
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On Sept. 4, 21-year-old Joshua Pomier will have served nearly four years in a detention center near San Bernardino, Calif. Pomier is charged with multiple counts of car theft and robbery. There are two deeply troubling problems with the amount of time he has spent behind bars. One, he has not been convicted of any of the crimes he's charged with. He had barely turned 18 years old when he and another juvenile were arrested for the crimes in September 2004. Pomier and family members vehemently protest his innocence. The even more tormenting problem is not Pomier's guilt or innocence, but the absurdly long length of time that he has been jailed awaiting disposition, any disposition, of the charges leveled against him.

His bail was set at nearly a half million dollars, and there have been several delayed court dates. During that time, he has been relentlessly pressured to accept a plea bargain that will require him to serve a lengthy prison sentence. Pomier has refused, and continues to protest his innocence.

Pomier is African American, and his dragged out incarceration without being convicted of anything is not unusual. In fact, he's a near textbook example of how thousands of mostly black and Latino young adults and juveniles languish for months, even years, in America's jails with high or no bail, receive shoddy or non-existent legal counsel, and are browbeaten and even threatened by harried, overworked, and often indifferent public defenders and prosecutors to accept deals.

The Coalition for Juvenile Justice estimates that on any given day, nearly 30,000 youth between the ages of 14 and 18 years old are locked down in juvenile detention centers nationally for interminably long periods awaiting disposition of their cases. Even with the plunge in juvenile and adult crime, the numbers of youth and young adults incarcerated for lengthy pre-detention jail time nearly doubled in the 1990s. During the same time, the rates of excessive pre-trial detention time dropped for white youth.

The young adult defendants are nearly always faced with excessively high bail, and for juveniles, no bail. In the juvenile system, most states do not permit bail. Juveniles are considered wards of the court, and pretrial release is solely at the discretion of the judge. High bail, or lack of bail, clog court calendars, and overcrowded jails virtually ensure that defendants such as Pomier get lost in the system without any disposition of their case. In one study, the Sentencing Project found that blacks on average were held for a year or more without any action on their case.

The effect of outrageously long pretrial imprisonment has been catastrophic. It has severely strained jail and detention center inmate capacity, overtaxed city and county budgets, and strapped public defenders to keep up with the backlog of cases that have not had any legal resolution. The Juvenile Justice group's study pegged the cost of one detention bed at more than $1 million over 20 years, and that's a juvenile detention bed. The jail costs for lengthy adult pretrial imprisonment is higher.

Then there's the human cost. Excessive pretrial detention has resulted in a rise in inmate violence in overcrowded, poorly served jails, increased suicides, stress-related illnesses, and psychiatric ailments, as well as the personal anguish of the family members of the defendant awaiting trial or sentencing not knowing how, or especially when, their fate will be decided. The outrage of men and women languishing indefinitely behind bars costs society in still other ways. A San Francisco study of 1,500 high risk youth found that the youths that were placed in alternative to detention programs had a far lower recidivism rate than youth who remained incarcerated while awaiting sentencing.

An international criminal justice reform group, Justice Initiative, has established pretrial detention reform study projects in 10 countries. In Mexico, the project has worked with prosecutors in several areas to provide a more efficient and effective bail supervision program, bail assistance and counseling programs to ensure that defendants have access to fair and reasonable bail. This has reduced the number of defendants who skip bail, and has lowered recidivism rates.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other international legal and human rights groups have fiercely condemned excessive pretrial imprisonment in the United States and other countries. They have labeled it a gross violation of civil liberties. It also mocks the U.S. Constitution's precept of a defendant's right to a speedy trial.

The outrage and condemnation of international legal and human rights bodies and the efforts by some states at reforms in the way defendants awaiting disposition of their cases are handled is welcome. However, it won't do much to ease the anxiety of Pomier's family. They have waited for nearly four years to find out the ultimate legal fate of Pomier. Unfortunately, there's no sign that their wait will end any time soon.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).

 
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