I emphasize RATES because some people think it is because we have a big country, but I am talking about this: the USA incarcerates over 700 people per 100,000 versus Canada's less than 140 per 100,000. That means that they incarcerate at a rate 5 times higher than we do. Does that mean that they have 1/5 of the crime? No, they have comparable rates of crime. So their streets are about as safe as ours, but it appears they are paying 1/5 of the cost to achieve the same "safety".
Oey vey! Yipes! What the .....? Yes, that was my reaction. I lived in a part of the country where I met more Canadians than I do living in the Midwest and I was struck by how similar we are in culture and heritage. So the difference struck me as particularly painful.
There are more statistics that can keep you up at night, but suffice it to say there is A LOT of evidence that something is rotten in the USA legal system. And there is A LOT of evidence that, even when people return home, their families suffer long-term financial damage because when people "have paid their debt to society" (and what a painfully ironic phrase that is) they continue to pay in routinely being denied employment, housing, opportunities to volunteer in their communities (even in encouraging young people to NOT make the mistakes they made), social safety nets even after years of being solid citizens with no subsequent arrests much less convictions. And, like the quote above, I am seeing (and praying for) rising awareness of American voters learning much that leaves them disconcerted about how their tax dollars are being spent and examining if they are any safer because of policies that have led to a mountain of small mistakes resulting in confusingly inconsistent punishment devastating families and communities AND leaving those against whom the crime is committed with additional wounds from a system that does not honor their pain.
And there is clear research and plenty of anecdotal evidence from EVERY silo of the legal system about wealth making a big difference in how people are treated or mistreated in our legal system. Cash bond is a particularly big problem even though Kentucky made reforms in 1976 which has NOT resulted in them becoming a hot-bed of crime. Because states have been so slow to visit this question, especially in the "lock everybody up forever if they make any kind of mistake" days of the 1980s that really accelerated this mess, we are now seeing movements to adjust this. But there is also LOTS of whaling and anguish from rural areas where prosecutors and sheriffs are screaming. But these are also areas where a growing awareness of a particularly egregious form of classism flourishes. People charged with petty crimes are charged room and board for the days they are in jail. Then when they get out and the conviction makes it hard to find jobs where there are few jobs, and they are unable to go to cities where there might be jobs because they owe for back room and board charges. Soooo, they are then clapped back in jail because they are not keeping up on the payments for past room and board, and/or not being able to afford a car, much less insurance, they have missed a court date to discuss all this and....yes, you guessed it. They are dumped back into the jail to begin racking up more bills for room and board. There are records where a single minor offence (even a status office for a minor) has lead to decades on this no-money-to-pay-room&board merry-go-round.
Does that sound fair? reasonable? best use of resources? Nope, to me neither, but it a common problem.
My state's Supreme Court has ordered our Circuit Courts to use pre-trial tools to improve fairness, but six months after that went into effect my Circuit Court has demonstrated no willingness to comply and we still have the most dysfunctional legal aid in the country according to several sources. (Legal aid has too few lawyers, too many court referrals/clients which exacerbates the cash bail problem with people spending several days in jail before someone can appear with them to challenge bail requirements.) We learned recently that, while the expense for all this nonsense is mounting, the district attorney's office is shuffling increasing numbers of domestic assault cases (where no bones were broken and no shots found their mark) into municipal court where there are no teeth when folks don't abide by the court's orders. (This includes no mechanism for fire arms to be removed from the home by court order.)
And let me make one last point about that. Locally, 25% of our murders are domestic. Domestic abuse and over-incarceration are placing more strain on foster care systems. For people aging out of foster care, homelessness and trafficking are significant risks. And 70% are incarcerated within 3 years of aging out.
We not only live in a hot mess of legal and judicial and bureaucratic malfeasance that is outrageously expensive and horribly unsafe, but we are not working to stop the flow INTO the system in any effective ways.
Become informed and hold your elected officials accountable. Speak up and speak out at your churches where their prayers and hands and feet are desperately needed to help our wounded families and people who genuinely are working to return to being a blessing to their families and communities need mentors and welcoming churches. Volunteer in schools and jails and prisons. Befriend a struggling single parent. Comfort the parent whose child has gone astray. Take dinner to the foster family on your block. Write a note to a law enforcement officer, teacher, social worker, ER nurse or doctor, family counselor, corrections officer because they are all struggling with the ugly reality of what is happening to our children.
If there is hope, it comes as God had called us forth to behave in new ways, that we might have better outcomes for us all.
The above quote is from Anthony Lewis' Gideon's Trumpet, a history of how the United States' commitment to legal aid for anyone accused of a serious crime--even if they are too poor to pay--became the law of the land. It feels like pure God's Grace because so many pieces had to come together to make this land-mark decision happen. One of those pieces were the 35 states who had already moved to assure access to an attorney for anyone accused of a felony. The Supreme Court was seeing a high number of cases coming to them from states that had not moved to provide broad access to legal representation and they had themselves been highly variable on how such cases were resolved. Another was the astonishingly "on point" application submitted to the Supreme Court by poor, poorly educated, deeply flawed Florida prisoner 003826 AKA Clarence Earl Gideon. I did not realize the Supreme Court accepts for review some applications from indigent petitioners although often mental illness and lack of education or failing physical health render such applications impossible to understand and ineligible for consideration. But Mr. Gideon's application, pencil printed on lined paper, painstakingly executed, came at the right moment in history and indicated that all prior appeal efforts had been duly exhausted. He had asked the judge to provide a pro bono attorney for him and been refused. As a result it appeared from the scanty transcript that the judge had often asked him if he understood a point of law, but had provided, of course, no help when testimony was open to challenges. (All parties except the accused thought it was a slam dunk of a man whose record was not unusual for people who have a hard time finding their way from the fringes of society and subsistence survival, but which contained no violence even at that, yet he was given the highest possible sentence after being overcharged for what for a more "acceptable" citizen would have been charged as a misdemeanor.)
You see, Mr. Gideon had been charged with the of breaking a window to access a bar where he worked part time, breaking into the cigarette machine to steel the change, and stealing a six-pack of beer and a couple of bottles of wine, none of which was found in his possession. The lone accuser was a person at least as likely to have committed the crime based on opportunity and criminal record. No, this was not a "big deal" case to us, but it was a very big deal to a man with compromised health, and a deep love and commitment to his children's well-being. (His children were in the foster care system although he had been working to get them to his extended family out-of-state because of his health and his wife's abandonment of them all.)
The book is a challenging read, but it made me proud to be born where we keep working on being more Just. May we be diligent in heeding Hebrew 13:3-- Remember prisoners as if you were in prison with them, and people who are mistreated as if you were in their place.