By Jack Burns
Nearly half a million Americans are currently being held in jail while they are denied their constitutional right to a speedy trial. The problem has become so pervasive that many critics of the American judicial system are up in arms over the phenomenon. In Louisiana alone, there are over 2,000 people who have been languishing in jail for more than a year, all waiting for the chance to prove their innocence.
The Louisiana Sheriff’s Association was forced to clarify just how bad the problem is after its executive director, Mike Ranatza, overstated the number during a recent testimony on the issue. He clarified by breaking down the total number, and noting that of those 2,181 people:
- 1,507 had been held between one and two years without a trial
- 448 had been held between two and three years without a trial
- 141 had been held between three and four years without a trial
- 85 people had been held more than four years without a trial.
To many, the number may not seem that large. But to an inmate who may be innocent, having to sit in jail knowing he is innocent for—at times—more than four years without a trial, must be maddening. Worse still, it demonstrates the judicial system’s willingness to allow someone to be punished before being proven guilty in a court of law.
According to a report from Americas Quarterly:
In most jurisdictions in the Americas, authorities are required by law to bring an arrested individual before a judicial officer within 24 to 72 hours of arrest. If the accused is not released on personal recognizance or cannot afford bail, the individual may spend months in detention while his or her case is pending.
A defendant’s inability to afford bail becomes, in effect, a prison sentence. Probably nowhere is the problem more pervasive than in Cook County, Illinois, where Sheriff Tom Dart presides over the Cook County Jail facility.
Dart recently told CBS News half of the jail’s nearly 7,500 inmates should not even be in jail. He said jails have become a dumping ground for the poor, the mentally ill, and for gang members.
I would suggest conservatively that half of the people here in the jail shouldn’t be here.
Dart said that is a conservative estimate and it could be much higher. He explained the issue, echoing sentiments by critics of the current judicial system who say that it is broken and must be fixed.
They don’t pose a danger to anybody. The people in most jails—in 95 percent of the people in this jail are waiting on a trial. So everybody here are people who haven’t been convicted yet. So you say to yourself, “All right, they’re presumed innocent. Who is so dangerous that we need to hold them here while we’re waiting on a trial?”
The commonsensical approach to the question is not being answered by the system. Instead, jails are filling to capacity with people who presumably know they’re getting a raw deal. Tensions boil over and then violence erupts within the jails—the effects and consequences of which result in many inmates and corrections officers being injured on duty. In a recent example, seven inmates were killed and 17 injured after fights broke out at the Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, South Carolina.
Adding insult to injury, when inmates’ cases are finally addressed in court, the cases are often dropped, dismissed, or plea deals offered for time served. Those who are locked away awaiting trial are considered jailed under “Pretoria’s detention” status.
As Americas Quarterly noted,
In the U.S., which has the largest pretrial detention population in the world, 20 percent of detainees eventually had their case dismissed or were acquitted.
Unfortunately, being jailed without a speedy trial under pretrial detention status can be detrimental and damaging to an inmate’s health and mental well-being. Americas Quarterly described the effects of being jailed without a speedy trial:
The loss of liberty and security, and being cut off from friends and family can result in lasting psychological impact. Further, exposure to violence among detainees, threats of violence from other inmates and even guards and direct violence ranging from acts of humiliation to physical violence or sexual assault also often traumatize individuals.
Americas Quarterly insists the effects on the individual who has been jailed without a speedy trial are not limited to physical and emotional damage, but financial as well. Not only do many, if not most, lose their jobs while jailed awaiting trial but a cycle of poverty often results:
Detention can cause lost wages or loss of employment, which carries severe collateral consequences for the individual, his or her family, and society at large. The loss of income and the ability to support family members or pay for housing may drive some individuals to criminal activity.
It also creates a vicious circle: many of those caught in pretrial detention are already poor and unable to afford bail, which further hampers their ability to obtain legal counsel that can help them negotiate the pitfalls of the judicial system.
In Louisiana, few people in positions of power have a clear solution of what needs to be done to move the state’s jailed awaiting trial through the system. NOLA.com reported that many have expressed outrage but with a broken system, no one seems to know what to do to expedite an inmate’s constitutional rights to a speedy trial. According to the report from NOLA.com:
Rep. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge, said holding more than 2,000 people for longer than a year before they get before a judge is still “unconscionable”…Ranatza said the reasons so many people are being held for so long without a trial are complicated and based on several factors. “I would really be remiss in my duties if I said that this was a very simplistic equation.”… “It’s a classification nightmare for us…It’s better for us for the individual to move through the system.”