Our Broken Understanding of Each Other

orange shackles

Source: the Advocate

We don’t understand each other. In case you missed our current national turmoil.

Recent anlysis on what Democrats guess about Republican demographics and what Republicans think about Democratic demographics says we get a lot of things wrong about each other. Democrats think Republicans are older, more Evangelical, more Southern, and richer than they actually are. Republicans think Democrats are less Godly, blacker, gayer, and more unionized. And by wide margins.

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Source: FiveThirtyEight.com

And that’s from polling originally done in 2015! Does anyone think those misperceptions haven’t gotten better in our current national climate?

If we don’t  understand who people from different parts of the country or holding different view points actually are, how can we understand their experience?

I had the chance to observe someone else’s experience recently: a bail hearing at the Orleans Parish Courthouse in New Orleans.

Imagine seeing someone who has been arrested for a misdemeanor drug charge being held in an orange jumpsuit, with shackles around their wrists and ankles, just for the opportunity to have bail set. Does that feel “innocent until proven guilty”?

I don’t think so.

Imagine being held in jail because bail is set higher than you can afford, again for a misdemeanor drug arrest, thus allowing you to sit in jail for 45 days until the prosecuting attorney might decide whether or not to charge you? Does that feel “innocent until proven guilty”?

I don’t think so either.

And what if at the end of that 45 days, at which point you’ve probably lost your job, and perhpas your home, the prosecutor offers you a plea deal. Maybe you didn’t even do it. Maybe you did, but the evidence against you is flawed and successful prosecution is unlikely. But, you have a choice: sit in jail for months (maybe even years) awaiting trial or take the plea, including accepting the crime on your record, to get out of jail and back to your life.

Maybe you’re even charged with a felony. Take the same scenario, even for non-violent felons. But now the prosecuting attorney has 60 days to decide whether to charge you. On day 61 they offer a plea deal: accept guilt, time served, and go on probation…or stay in jail for months to prove your innocence while your life leaves you behind. That’s a deeply unpleasant choice, with little in the way of justice involved.

What happens with a felony conviction on your record? You’ll have trouble voting. You’ll have trouble getting a job. You’ll be denied public housing, food stamps, and other programs we as a society has agreed would be helpful to give people a helping hand up. Dare I say, to be rehabilitated and productive members of society again.

All because you may have been arrested (perhaps on flawed charges) and couldn’t afford bail for a non-violent offense.

I saw such things unfold during that recent observation of a bail hearing. Add in the brief opportunity for arrested individuals to speak for a few minutes with a public defender prior appearing before a judge to have bail set. Add in the confusion on their faces as the fast-paced hearing moves forward, full of court lingo, and boom…in a matter of minutes, you’re stuck in jail because you and your family can’t afford bail.

So, you might be saying, Eric, that can’t happen. People can’t sit in jail for months or years for non-violent offenses.

I used to believe that too.

Then there are statistics like this:

Overall, [Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association executive director] Ranatza said there are 2,181 people who are being held in Louisiana jails that have been there for a year or more without going to trial. That’s about 15 percent of the combined jail populations of 14,041 people who had not been convicted of any crime yet, according to information provided by Ranatza.

Of those 2,181 people:

  • 1,507 had been held between one and two years without a trial;

  • 448 had been held between two and three years without a trial;

  • 141 had been held between three and four years without a trial; and

  • 85 people had been held more than four years without a trial.

In one horrific case, a man was recently ordered release on appeal for lack of a speedy trial. He had been awaiting trial on a drug charge for eight years!

Yes, New Orleans and Louisiana as a whole is a gnarly place as far as injustice in the criminal justice system goes.

You might also say: “Eric, that wouldn’t happen where I live.”

Really? Police never target minority neighborhoods for drug crime, including petty crimes like marijuana? Black Americans are not arrested for drug possession at disproportionate rates to their drug use even though they use drugs at the same rate as white Americans? You think those same subtle – or not so subtle – levels of discrimination don’t exist where you live?

I used to believe that such discrimination didn’t exist. I grew up white, upper-middle class, in the Seattle burbs, going to a college prep K-12 school. Then I came to New Orleans, saw the abject poverty in historically African American neighborhoods, cursed with the legacy of decades of Jim Crow, a largely abominable public school system, and an economy limping along amidst the lingering malaise, apathy, and corruption of Louisiana. Most importantly, I read the stories of a criminal justice system that is really efficient at over-arresting, over-charging, and over-sentencing…lots of black people. And it’s not right.

And as much as things in Louisiana might be on the extreme end of this problem in America, we’re all on the same spectrum of the problem. It’s just a question of degree, even if our ideals should remain the same.

Let’s remind ourselves of some basics rights in the Constitution and the amendments to protect the rights of the individual and the accused. The 4th – 8th Amendments in the Bill of Rights specifically secure:

  • protection against unreasonable search and seizure
  • protection of due process
  • protection from self-incrimination
  • protection from double jeopardy
  • the right to a speedy trial
  • the right to a jury trial
  • the right to counsel in one’s defense
  • protection from excessive bail
  • protection from excessive fines
  • protection from cruel and unusual punishment

The 14th later added “equal protection under the laws.”

All these things were viewed as rather important, and necessary, for justice in our country.

Now, consider this: until the era of cell phones and body camera, police misbehavior was a largely foreign concept for most of us living in the suburbs or rural America, and sometimes even urban neighborhoods that aren’t poor or dominated by poorer minorities.

Well, there aren’t any cell phones and body cameras in the court room.

So, the next time you hear or read about some horror story in the criminal justice system and think, “that’s terrible…but that would never happen where I live.”

I ask you, think again. Do you really know what the criminal justice system is like? Do you know what the life of someone who grew up and lives in entirely different circumstances from you is really like?

Maybe you could consider how you can find a way to learn more about some part of our society you might not know very well. It might be as simple as seeking out conversation with someone you encounter regularly in your life, who you know hails from dramatically different circumstances.

Now do something about that.

We could all use some better understanding of each other.

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