The video is now 4 years old. Nothing has changed. Well – maybe a little bit, but not really.
BRYAN STEVENSON is the founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. Mr. Stevenson is a widely acclaimed public interest lawyer who has dedicated his career to helping the poor, the incarcerated and the condemned.
If you listen to him talk you will learn (if you don’t know already) that the United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other nation in the world and that our jail and prison population has grown from 300,000 to 2.3 million since 1976 ( a growth of over 700%, In the same time period our population grew around 40%).
We know this. Don’t we? Well, actually, no. No, ’we’ don’t. And, even if we do know, what do we do? What can we do?
At the end of last year, a friend of mine introduced me to her brother, Michael Coyle, who happens to be a Professor of Political Science and Criminal Justice. We met on one of my road trips, and discussed how the system needs to change. Michael – like me – comes from a position of how do we fix this system once and for all? In his mind, nothing short of revolution is going to solve this issue, but anyone close enough to the system knows that even a revolution won’t cut it. We have on our hands one of those ‘Wicked Problems’ that I touch on from time to time.
Just consider one foundational question. Do we send people to prison to punish them or to rehabilitate them? Out of the gate, you will not find agreement. And if we cannot agree on that, then how do we know how to structure the criminal justice system?
Here’s some other data …
- The US makes up 5% of the world’s population and 20% of the world’s prison population.
- One in 110 adults are incarcerated in a prison or local jail in the U.S. This marks the highest rate of imprisonment in American history.
- One in 35 adults are under some form of ‘correctional’ control, counting prison, jail, parole and probation populations.
- There are ten times as many mentally ill people in US prisons as there are in US hospitals.
- Recidivism in the US is anything up to 75% (it varies depending on whether you measure within 1, 3 or 5 years). In Sweden the maximum rate sits at 40% and declining.
By the way, back to that question about whether prison is about punishment or rehabilitation, in Sweden it is all about rehabilitation;
“Our role is not to punish. The punishment is the prison sentence: They have been deprived of their freedom. The punishment is that they are with us.”
–Nils Öberg, Director-General of Sweden’s Prison and Probation Service
As Lao-Tsé would have it … “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” and so it is with me. Whilst one of my journey’s would indeed be nothing short of that revolution that Michael talks about, the fact is that if I can take one small step to help one person in this crazy world of the US penal system, then count me in.
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I won’t share my friends name, it isn’t relevant. His story is. Let’s call him Simon.
Simon is great. Bright, relevant, engaged and ready to do what it takes. He’s in his 50s and white, with a reasonably privileged background here on the West Coast. All of that didn’t stop him ending up in the system as a teen. And that didn’t stop him being trapped in the system for the past THIRTY years, and a lot of that time incarcerated. Using drugs, dealing drugs, and all the related crimes and behaviors that stem from addiction.
Last time he came out early with ‘a deal’, ready to finally turn his life around. After leaving prison, it was his decision to take the path he did that brought us together. I have known Simon for about a year.
He recently had an on the spot drug test, (part of his probation), and the results came back positive. In his case that means that he was immediately back in court. He didn’t trust the results because he knew that he wasn’t using. That was him for thirty years. He is no longer that person. In prep for the day, knowing the system, he took some additional tests, of his own volition, using his own very hard earned money. They came back negative.
Simon’s lawyer was court appointed. Simon did not want that person representing him, because they were on his case the last time he was incarcerated. He felt that they didn’t believe him and therefore wouldn’t properly represent him. But, with no money, what was he going to do?
Court day came. It was not a trial, but rather an initial hearing, so that a court date could be set. I met with Simon in advance of the hearing, who asked me to take his wallet, his car keys, gave me phone numbers of his friends even his car’s pink slip. He wanted to be sure that if he should be returned to prison that morning that I would call a friend on his behalf, so that his affairs could be handled properly.
Genuinely startled I looked at him and asked why all the prep? This was a hearing. Nothing was going to happen. His words will always remain with me …
“John, I have been in this system for 35 years. Even when I am out, I am still in the system. I know how this goes. Whatever the lawyers tell you, I could go “down“ this morning.”
I actually had spoken to a couple of lawyers and both had assured me that nothing would happen that day. It was ‘just a hearing’. Simon knew that this is a lawyer’s position. He also knew that you had to be prepared for all eventualities.
I met the lawyer, who at best was unprepared and definitely shaking with nerves ( I kid you not). This was Simon’s hope?
The procedures in these courts are very staccato. Within 5 minutes of Simon and his lawyer taking their positions on the Judge’s right, the judge proclaimed that the positive result from Simon had broken his plea bargain and that he was being sent down, where he would serve time until the court day.
I was stunned. Simon was right. He knew the system.
I watched him as he nudged the lawyer – “tell him”. She stood up – wobbling. And in a shaking, quiet, voice pointed out to the judge that Simon had of his own volition taken other tests and that they were negative. Could that be taken into consideration …. there was another 5 minute back and forth where the judge basically said to Simon that he had two choices. Accept the negative result and come his day in court, if found guilty, he would take his Probation Officers’s recommendation and not send him back to prison, but instead another institution – ‘on the outside’. Alternatively if he wants to fight his case, that is ok – but if he is found guilty he will simply go back to prison. End Of.
Simon walked out of that court determined to fight. He will be returning for his trial later on this summer. He is spending a lot of his own money on doing more and more tests. He knows he is innocent. He now needs to prove that innocence. He is taking self financed, voluntary drug tests every week – more if he can afford it and most of the time they are coming back negative. Wait. Most? If he is clean – shouldn’t they come back 100% negative? Well, you would have thought wouldn’t you?
Before I go on, take a look and read this.
Landon, legally representing himself, told the court that a false positive drug test just weeks before the end of his five-year probation sentence for forgery had cost him a new job, his upcoming marriage and thousands of dollars defending against the drug test results.
Landon discovered that Kroll Laboratories used a lower than recommended threshold for testing for the drug THC in the bloodstream, which made it likely that the results would be false positive. THC is the primary active ingredient in marijuana.
And here is a short extract from something my friend sent to me. His words, my emphasis …
Second test back from July 1st. Negative. Taken the same day at the same location by the same person from the same place on my head as the one that came back positive for cocaine.
Not only that, but Simon hasn’t used cocaine for 15 years. More on how these false positives can occur.
The reason for this is they don’t actually test for the substance itself they test for the metabolites your body produces when you ingest the substance.
And at root we find that the drug test system is deeply, deeply flawed. And it has been known about for a long time, this piece form Stop The Drug War was written in 2007. But as recently as July 7th, the New York Times had this piece in their magazine which in turn was linked back to by Reason DOT com when they wrote this piece.
Simon does take Ibuprofen for headaches he suffers from. Ibuprofen contains ingredients that the Federal authorities have recognized regularly causes false positives in the tests that are routinely used by judicial authorities.[/message][su_spacer]
And my point?
So much so that we are passing laws in the US to release prisoners en masse, just to keep the numbers ‘reasonable’. Hold on. We are sending people to prison at unprecedented rates and then ‘bulk’ releasing prisoners onto the streets? But there’s more. When we released 30,000 prisoners a few years ago, it turned out that crime didn’t increase. Here’s what happened when California released 30,000 prisoners because of a DoJ order.
Meanwhile, I am pretty convinced that anyone – I mean anyone – with money will be able to ‘lawyer up’ and get themselves out of a pickle – even if they are guilty. It’s the rest of us that I worry about. People like Simon.
Simon has replaced his court appointed defender with a lawyer who believes him and will go to court to defend him. Simon, of his own initiative is continuing to pay for and take drug tests. I am proud of him. Simon is taking control of his life. Addicts don’t do that.
How has Simon done all of this? He has taken every last dime out of his savings, defending himself against a biased system that assumes if you have been to prison, you are essentially ‘guilty until proven innocent’ while those courts are relying on tests that are simply wrong and at best discredited.
Simon was saving his money to kick start his business that is already incorporated and focussed on helping others escape the downward spiral of that which we call the American Justice System. When he wins his case, he will start again.
I have every confidence that Simon will win the day despite the odds. But ask yourself -what would you do in Simon’s position.
If you KNEW you were innocent, would you gamble with your freedom – or just take a plea bargain? Me. I would encourage you to take a stand. That is what ‘People Power’ is all about.
It is but one story. But it is a personal one to me, and one that I am doing what I can to help win. Let me know if you are interested in the outcome and I will report back accordingly.