Whenever the next new, great, cool, this-will-fix-everything idea pops on the scene, some mean old guy (occasionally me) will give it the stink-eye, look at it skeptically, and ponder what could go wrong. Someone else will then get very angry with the mean old guy (occasionally me) for always shooting down the next new, great, cool, this-will-fix-everything ideas, informing us (me) that we’re morons and demanding, if this idea sucks, then we should give them the “right” answer.
Happens all the time.
When video visitation was first introduced in county jails, Grits supported it. It was pitched as a supplement to face to face visitation, a way someone could communicate with a loved one (or client) from a distance when for whatever reason they couldn’t come visit them in person. Proponents insisted face to face visitation would still be possible.
Now, that do-gooder pretense has been abandoned. Increasingly, county jails shifting to video visitation are eliminating face to face visits entirely – as is happening in Bastrop County this month and Travis County did last year – so a private vendor can charge families for the privilege of communicating with jail inmates. With 20/20 hindsight, it’s clear I wasn’t cynical enough, failing to foresee that counties and companies would seek to monetize families’ visits with incarcerated loved ones the same way that they gouged them on phone calls before the FCC reined them in.
That’s from Scott Henson at Grits for Breakfast, who has left some nasty comments here in the past when his enthusiasm for an idea wasn’t met with the validation he believed he’s due. He’s a big fan of legislative and administrative solutions to the problems we face, and less so of legal solutions, or the lawyers who are so negative toward trusting the government that they can’t see how wonderful the government can really be.
This is why.
There is a salutary purpose to be served by people like Henson, who believe that good government can offer valuable solutions to vexing problems. The positive wishes for new ideas provide a force that drives innovations that do, in many instances, make things better than they were before. Even if they don’t turn out perfectly, or as well as hoped, they can be surprisingly better. Whether that’s enough is another issue.
But as lawyers, particularly criminal defense lawyers, we are the janitors of good wishes, cleaning up the mess left behind by overly optimistic notions of grand solutions that ultimately create more, different, unanticipated problems. We tend not to be as sanguine. We look for the cracks, the holes, the problems, because we’re the ones picking up the pieces of ruined lives left behind by the best of intentions.
Henson chastises himself for not being “cynical enough.” It’s unfortunate that he views it as cynicism, though he’s made it abundantly clear over the years that he does. He’s wrong. He shouldn’t be cynical, and he shouldn’t see those of us who don’t knee-jerk adore every new scheme out of the box as cynical. We’re not, and he shouldn’t be.
We are skeptical. We are critical. We scrutinize ideas for their good and their bad. Sometimes perfect is the enemy of the good. Sometimes, good isn’t good enough. Sometimes, good leads down the road to perdition. Which of these applies is the question, and it behooves thinking people to remove the blinders and take a cold, hard look beforehand.
In this particular instance, Henson writes about how video jail visits, promised as an adjunct to in-person visits, seemed like a great idea. It offered a secondary way of visiting inmates, and was a significant boon to family far away from prisons. What could go wrong?
Well, the worthiness of the idea was dependent on its being a supplement to the normal, in-person visits. When they came up with the idea, that’s how it was supposed to work. And then time passed, and the supplement aspect faded until one day it was decided that video visits would serve as a replacement for in-person visits.
According to the prisons, video visits reduced disciplinary problems and contraband in the facility. In-person visits are a much bigger hassle for the prisons, demanding staff to keep everyone in line, as there must be someone at the gate to antagonize and humiliate the loved ones of inmates. Keeping family at a distance makes their administrative tasks easier.
And then, there’s the money.
With 20/20 hindsight, it’s clear I wasn’t cynical enough, failing to foresee that counties and companies would seek to monetize families’ visits with incarcerated loved ones the same way that they gouged them on phone calls before the FCC reined them in.
There is invariably a strong, perhaps insurmountable, tug of a new revenue stream that can be easily rationalized. So it’s a burden on inmates families? Well, they shouldn’t commit crimes then. Simple. It’s always simple to explain yet another burden on criminals.
But they promised, when they introduced the idea of video visits, that it wouldn’t replace in person visits. They promised it would be a supplement. They promised.
Did they lie? Maybe, but maybe not. Most ideas start with relatively good intentions. But once in place, someone gets the idea to tweak it, change it, make it work just a little bit better. And then another person sticks their nose in for another change. And next thing you know, the original idea becomes unrecognizable, and the pieces that made sense at the outset, and upon which you rely when believing that they will execute the idea in a way that serves to better the situation, start crumbling.
It’s not being cynical to recognize that this happens, and happens all the time. It’s experience. It’s entropy. It’s what comes of trusting institutional judgment, whether legislative or administrative, to not put its own interests first. And that’s why criminal defense lawyers are here, to be the system’s janitors and clean up the mess.