The Washington Post has another article about the crisis in indigent defense. Are you surprised to learn that no one has found a pile of money to hire your public defenders or to lighten the caseload to human levels? Neither am I, but people keep doing incredibly, and inexcusably, stupid stuff that ends up landing them in the dock. Go figure.
The article opens on the tale of Kimberly Hurrell-Harring, whose husband is on vacation in Great Meadows Correctional Facility. He’s got one itty, bitty favor. Can she just squeeze a little weed into an orifice when she comes to see him? Really, is that too much to ask? And he asked on the prison phone. You know, the ones with the really big signs over them that say, “Your Call Is Being Recorded!“ Oh, those prison jokesters. Who would believe them?
He was calling from a maximum-security prison, and someone must have been listening because when she walked into the Great Meadows Correctional Facility in upstate New York, guards immediately yanked her to the side.
They told her things would go easier if she handed over the dope without a fuss. She did, and things immediately got worse.
With a swiftness that made her head spin, she was handcuffed and hauled to jail. At her arraignment, there was no public defender available, though she was entitled to one. Standing alone, she was charged with one felony count of bringing dangerous contraband into a prison.
After her arraignment, Hurrell-Harring went back to jail because she couldn’t afford bail, either. Three weeks passed before a public defender appeared, and she says she spent a total of 15 to 20 minutes with him before her sentencing hearing.
He told her not to fight the district attorney’s recommended punishment _ six months behind bars and five years of probation. It was the best she could hope for, he said. But she had no criminal record. Surely, she begged, couldn’t possession of less than an ounce of pot, a misdemeanor under other circumstances, be bargained down to probation?
“It was like he had no time for me,” she says now, still unemployed 17 months after her release because she lost her nursing license when she became a convicted felon. “He told me to plead guilty.”
Let’s start with our heroine, secreting marijuana in her private parts. Did it surprise her that this might get her in trouble? Her dear husband, already in prison, wanted it, and as she later explains, women do bad things for their men. Really? Then women get in trouble for doing bad things for their men. It’s a cause and effect thing. If you can’t afford to get in trouble for trying to sneak some drugs into prison, then here’s a solution. Don’t do it. Not to hard to figure out.
And what about the guards who lied to her that it would go easier if she just gave it up? Isn’t it heart-warming to know that the primary tool of law enforcement is lying? Yes, it’s effective. No, it’s not the sort of thing that engenders respect for the law. Especially when they manipulate some clearly clueless woman. Big, tough prison guards. Aren’t you proud of yourselves?
Then we have our prosecutor, who could have charged her with a misdemeanor, given that it was only a small amount of marijuana (it’s not clear how much, but there are few places within a body where you can hide a brick). But this prosecutor was shooting fish in a barrel, so why not dump a full load on this woman and do as much damage as humanly possible. After all, it’s not like she’s in a position to fight back, right?
Strangely, the article makes no mention of a judge. Was there a judge around? We can only assume, it being a court and all, but nary a mention of why the judge held her on bail (was she going to flee with her man in Great Meadows?), thus imposing one of the most coercive means of getting a plea, nor why the charge and sentence for this minor offense was cool with him.
But since this was an article about indigent defense, I reserve my special thoughts for the lawyer charged with defending our heroine from tragedy. What does Patrick Barber, the part-time public defender, have to say about this case?
He agrees with his former client. He doesn’t have much time to visit clients. It’s not possible to see every defendant, he said. Many have no car, and can’t get to his office. Others are in jail, and he simply can’t get to all of them, he says.
Barber claims he did the best he could for Hurrell-Harring.
“She couldn’t have been charged with a misdemeanor because it wasn’t offered. It wasn’t going to be offered. The district attorney takes a very hard stance when it comes to prison contraband,” he said.
Hurrell-Harring, 33, doesn’t much care about Baker’s caseload . . .Nor should she. What we do is defend people who do stupid things, guilty or not. That she screwed up big time is irrelevant. She still deserves representation by a lawyer who hasn’t surrendered before he met her. That’s how our system is supposed to work.
Of course indigent funding is a disaster. But this example shows a system of failure at every level, from every individual involved, not just indigent funding. No amount of money is going to change what happened here. They say it may not be perfect, but it’s the best there is. Just keep repeating that to yourself and you can sleep soundly at night.