Saturday, July 14, 2012
Not yet tried, and sentenced to Red Lobster
Eric Miller (SLU) and I have an oped in today's NYT on the quiet scandal of abusive pretrial release conditions. I've reprinted it after the jump. This is a piece that grew out of a some discussion here on Prawfs, and the next thing you know, well, acorns and oak trees and all that. My special thanks to Eric for being such an excellent co-author. (And while I have SLU on the mind, note that Anders Walker, Eric's colleague, has started a new blog on faculty productivity. It's called Faculty Flow.)
Btw, we tried to insert hyperlinks to your scholarship (really, all of you!), but the Times has a rule about capping hyperlinks. Odd. (And my sense is that this rule is actually, um, inconsistently applied. In any event, sorry about that.)
IN May, a federal judge ordered the pretrial release of an alleged robber on the condition that he read and write book reports for 90 minutes daily. Earlier this year, a trial judge directed a domestic violence defendant, again as a condition of pretrial release, to buy his wife flowers and take her out for bowling and supper at Red Lobster. And just last week, in Florida, a county judge’s new bail order forbade George Zimmerman, who claims self-defense in the death of Trayvon Martin, to drink alcohol or go out after 6 p.m.
Before anyone is proven guilty in a court of law, the Constitution extends the presumption of innocence. That presumption is at odds with the kinds of pretrial conditions described above.
To be sure, the presumption of innocence is not a guarantee against pretrial detention or other restrictions on liberty. As the Supreme Court has acknowledged, a defendant’s pretrial freedom can, upon a hearing, be limited in various ways when it comes to addressing substantial and reasonable fears having to do with flight risk or danger posed to the community (or danger to the judicial process itself, like in cases of witness tampering). So we don’t dispute that defendants can be, say, monitored by tracking devices while they are released.
But flight risk and crime prevention don’t justify bail conditions requiring book reports or bowling, which have far more to do with punishments or moral education techniques. While such sanctions could be permitted after conviction, they are flat-out unjustified before adjudication.
The more peculiar the conditions, the more likely they are to garner media attention and public scrutiny. Indeed, an appellate court overturned the book reports decision last month (though on the grounds that the defendant should not have been released at all). Unfortunately, the vast majority of these improper release orders fly under the radar. Indeed, the use of bail conditions as a means of engaging in low-level punishment and rehabilitation is more widespread than is generally understood. Drug testing, desisting from alcohol, as well as attendance at rehabilitation programs and mandatory job training programs have become all-too-familiar requirements of pretrial release, even for cases, like Mr. Zimmerman’s, that are unrelated to substance abuse.
This judicial paternalism persists in part because state and municipal judges, who handle the overwhelming number of criminal cases, face less public scrutiny than federal judges. But a bigger problem is that there is no widely established right to counsel at the bail stage. Accordingly, the judge gets to interact directly with the defendant, without the interference of “pesky” lawyers. Even when defense lawyers are present, they don’t make a stink over these improper conditions to avoid the risk of having bail for their clients denied altogether. They figure that at least the defendants will get out of jail, rather than having to cool their heels inside.
It’s understandable for judges to want to attack the social problems they see in the criminal justice system. The problem — besides the obvious issue of assigning punishments to people who might not even be convicted of crimes — is that they are thinking up untested responses on a case-by-case basis. This leads to disparities and fragmentation of penal policy even within jurisdictions; increased scrutiny of suspects at a stage when they should be free to build their defense against the government; and an imposition of the values of the temperance movement on the criminally accused (since even lawful and moderate consumption of alcohol is frequently prohibited). Perhaps most disconcerting is how easy it becomes for regular people to violate these unreasonable bail conditions, which leads to unnecessary arrests and even more overcrowded prisons.
Pretrial release raises complicated legal and policy issues in every case. Still, our core concern is that many judicial release orders exhibit confusion about or disregard for the distinction between pretrial release and post-conviction punishment. Judges determining pretrial release are not authorized to act as social workers or agents of public retribution. They need to stop pretending otherwise.
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