America's Obsession With Punishment: Who Cares If You're Guilty?

If you haven't watched John Oliver's report on the punitive bail system in the United States on his HBO show, find it and do it. It reveals several things that should shock our consciences, like the fact that people plead guilty to crimes, even if they are innocent, because they can't afford bail and don't want to go to jail. Of course, that would presume an ability to still be shocked, as well as presuming we still have consciences. Would that were the only thing to be shocked about.

Bear in mind, law and order fetishists who pleasure themselves to dashboard camera videos of police brutality, what the Rude Pundit is going to talk about here has to do with people, including minors, who have been accused of crimes but have not faced trial, let alone conviction, for often minor offenses. Let's focus in on Rikers Island in New York City, which is like the notorious Devil's Island but with less sharks and more prisoner beatings.

This week, as you may have seen, 22 year-old Kalief Browder committed suicide at the home he shared with his mother in New York City. When he was almost 17, he was arrested, accused of stealing a backpack. After over two months in a Bronx jail, where he stayed because his family couldn't afford bail, he was indicted by a grand jury and sent to Rikers Island without bail because he had violated probation on a previous crime - taking a joyride in a delivery truck - he had plead guilty to. At 17, he was held at Rikers for three years, the last seventeen months almost all in solitary confinement. His trial kept being put off and put off. He was even offered a deal to take three and a half years in prison in exchange for a guilty plea. Prosecutors hope that being held without trial for a long period will entice accused people to take a plea in order to get out. No muss, no fuss, a win for the good guys, right? Browder wouldn't take the plea, so back to Rikers he went, where he was beaten by guards, beaten by inmates, attempted suicide several times, was denied meals and medical care, and was finally released when the prosecutor said they had no case.

In other words, an innocent young man, a teenager, was imprisoned and tortured, and no one gave two shits about him. And his mind was destroyed by the experience. He couldn't function after all that time in solitary. He was paranoid and was hospitalized for a bit. Then, on Saturday, "Mr. Browder pushed an air-conditioning unit out of a second-floor window at his parents’ home, wrapped a cord around his neck and...pushed himself out of the opening feet-first."

There have been no arrests made in Kalief Browder's death.

This is what we are doing in this nation, where we have all the money in the world to keep trying to unfuck the fucked beyond fucked situation in Iraq. But actually fund the criminal justice system in a way that doesn't strand innocent people in jail just because they're poor? What are you? Some kind of bleeding heart pussy?

According to a New York Times article from April, "As of late March, over 400 people had been locked up for more than two years without being convicted of a crime, according to city data that is to be released publicly for the first time. And there are currently a half-dozen people at Rikers who have been waiting on pending cases for more than six years." Imagine hearing about prisoners in Nigeria held without trial for six years. We'd be outraged. We might even start a hashtag protest. This state of affairs is mostly because of a backlog of cases from courts where trials move too slowly, there aren't enough judges or attorneys, and/or general incompetence reigns. By the way, the number of unconvicted people sitting in Rikers is actually down from a few years ago. And Mayor Bill de Blasio is trying to make "speedy trial" actually mean something. (Fun fact: New York's speedy trial statute has huge gaps that allow for many, many delays.)

While they are staying at Rikers, these potentially innocent people live in a population with a 40% mental illness rate. Also, until very recently, Rikers' health care for prisoners was run by a company, Corizon Health, that "repeatedly failed to screen and supervise its employees, hiring doctors and mental health workers with serious disciplinary problems and criminal histories, including for murder and kidnapping." No one, however, will be going to jail for this.

How we treat our convicted criminals in the United States is often appalling. How we treat people who haven't been convicted of any crimes ought to be criminal itself.