Will they be serving turkey tomorrow on Riker’s Island? Or at Brooklyn House of Detention? Or the Tombs? Or thousands of jails across the country? It’s Thanksgiving. It’s a day when families should sit down together, eat a traditional meal, whatever your tradition may be, and reflect on the good things we’ve enjoyed over the past year.
It’s hard to do in jail. For some, that’s their own fault, having perpetrated bad things on other people. For others, they hurt no one, except themselves, but there are laws dictating our every move and they’ve broken them. And then there are the others, the innocent, the not-too-guilty, the people who sit on the Rock because some kid prosecutor mumbled the words “$1000 bail, your Honor, because reasons.” And there is a judge who has neither the time, information nor interest to do more than order “whatever.”
These people will sit in their chairs in a jail mess hall on Thanksgiving. They’re not a threat to society. They’re not evil. They won’t abscond or rush out to rape your daughter. They just can’t make bail, which was never needed and isn’t justifiable, but imposed nonetheless.
For years, we’ve been “discussing” how to fix the bail system. We’re now into the gimmick phase, algorithms and black boxes, that will magically do what judges lacked the courage to do. Bail can be fixed now, this very second. And yet, these people will eat nutraloaf, shaped like a bird part for Thanksgiving, seated next to someone else’s family member.
There are very different issues raised by detaining defendants. By far, the most sympathetic are those held on stupid-low bail, which I somewhat arbitrarily set at $2500. If they’re inclined to run off to Aruba, would that $500 bail stop them? But they can’t abscond. They can’t afford to make bail. They aren’t going anywhere, and you know it.
Nor are they going to harm anyone if you release them. They didn’t before. They didn’t now, as they’re held on some petty malum prohibitum offense like turnstyle jumping, or worse yet, not paying a fine because they had no money to pay a fine, and now have no money to make bail for not paying a fine.
Or the demon weed, the go-to crime when cops have to make their Compstat numbers.
But the kid who asks for bail, dressed smartly in his Harvard Law School tie, with the life experience of a gnat but the righteousness of every young person who knows exactly what’s right, asks for bail, silly bail, pointless bail, but enough bail to make the poor languish in jail and gave some random number that popped into his head. And you, judge, imposed it. Or maybe, if the defense lawyer raised enough of a stink, cut it in half, ignoring the point that the defendant who can’t make $1000 bail also can’t make $500. Or $250.
Tomorrow evening, that defendant will be sitting in jail, without his family, without turkey, without the aspects of American society that vest us in getting along with our fellow man.
Tomorrow evening, the kid prosecutor will be thankful for the dinner his mommy makes him. You, Judge, and I will be hosting a dinner of our loved ones. But today, take a stroll through the Tombs before leaving your chambers and wishing your staff a happy holiday.
Look at the face of the petty criminal who’s been in his cell since you mindlessly said “$1000, Next case.” Ask yourself whether you did anyone any good, whether this was why you got to sit on the big bench and have people laugh at your jokes. You knew they couldn’t make bail.
You knew that this was their sentence, before their conviction which will surely come because they will say anything to get out, to sit there for being the poor dregs of society, doing the things poor dregs do, and you used your authority to seal the deal. Don’t blame the kid prosecutor, because he doesn’t know any better. And you knew that too. The kid may have put you on the spot, but you did this.
Enjoy your turkey.