In court we support, observe and learn.
In the community, we share collected wisdom.
Courtwatch is a group of volunteers who sit in on cases at the Champaign County Courthouse to learn how “justice” really works. Regardless of guilt or innocence, we attend cases at the request of individuals.
Courtwatch went to court with Alvaro as he “sat in jail” at the Satellite for four and half months awaiting the disposition of his drug case. He was a college drop-out whose parents lived in Mattoon; they had immediately tried to help him by hiring a lawyer for $7,500, that they had heard of in Champaign. The lawyer was very optimistic about getting him off “before they paid him,” according to Alvaro, but by the time his case was heading to resolution, it looked very bad to the lawyer and “the best he could do was a four-year plea deal with time served.”
In an interview with Courtwatch, Alvaro said, “I made the wrong choice. I was smoking pot at the house of the guy I bought it from and we were arrested there at the same time. We each had access to $7,500 from the outside, but he decided to spend his on bail – bond was $75,000 for each of us (second offenses). So Steve took the public defender, which cost him nothing. While he was out free, he worked a job to make some money, then selected and paid a lawyer right before his case was coming to trial. I think he is going to be much better off than me. I think I made the wrong choice. “ Indeed he did. Shortly after Alvaro had left for prison, Steve got probation.
Steve and Alvaro had an unusual choice to make because they each had the same amount of money for just one of the two desirables – a paid lawyer and being out on bail. There are a few people considered to be at risk of flight or harm to the community with bonds set so high as to be unpayable ($500,000 to multiple millions). There are those who have the means to post bail and also hire a lawyer, but the majority of people “sitting in jail” have no choice at all. They have the public defender and they cannot make bail even if it is as little as $200.
It is common knowledge that poor people are more likely to be incarcerated than the non-poor; the public is becoming more aware of how being incarcerated makes the individual and his or her family much poorer. Yet it wasn’t until the Vera Report on Jails came out in February 2015 that we now understand the worst consequence of sitting in jail awaiting a “day in court”: those in pre-trial detention are 4 times more likely to receive a sentence of imprisonment and 3 times more likely to get a longer sentence than those (with comparable crimes) released before trial.
According to the Vera Institute of Justice, “This is in part because most defendants never actually go to trial, but instead make a deal with the prosecutor that typically involves pleading guilty in exchange for a reduced prison sentence.” People who exercise their constitutional right to a trial, often because they know that they are not guilty, or not guilty of all the charges, pay a huge price if they do not win the trial. The sentence will be a great deal bigger (Vera Report says 3 times as high) than the time they would have received for pleading guilty.
People who are already incarcerated are also typically pressured to take a deal by their own defense lawyer and the States’ Attorney, who decides the terms of the deal. “Defendants already in jail receive and accept less favorable plea agreements and do not have the leverage to press for better ones,” notes the Vera report. Even if a defendant resists those pressures and makes it to trial, waiting in jail can hurt his chances. The Vera report found that jurors are more likely to think defendants are guilty if they arrive in court wearing a jail uniform.”
Courtwatch has observed many trials of people who were in custody in Champaign County. They generally wear a suit of clothes that is brought to them by family, but arrive in shackles which are supposed to be taken off before the jury appears. On February 25, there was a hearing before Judge Clem for a re-trial of Corey Lee, and one of the bases was that one juror had come in too soon and observed Mr. Lee in shackles before they were removed. Yet nothing was done, such as removal of that juror and replacement with an alternate.
Steve was lucky in one more way. Not only could he lay hands on $7, 500, but that was also a relatively low bail. Today, the average bail for a serious offense is $55,400―some $4,000 more than the median yearly income, according to Vera. The problem is that most people offered bail cannot afford to pay for it, so they must “sit in jail,” with nothing to do as jails offer much less program or structured time than prisons do. Yet 62% of all people in US jails are not serving a sentence. They are unconvicted, “innocent until proven guilty,” sitting, waiting, without the means to purchase their freedom or their day in court.
For the full Vera report, “Incarceration’s Front Door: the Misuse of Jails in America,” go to: www.vera.org