Egos must be set aside for jail reforms to be successful

Published 6:05 am Tuesday, November 20, 2018


The Advocate-Messenger

Over the weekend, our weekly In Focus article went in-depth on some of the recommendations from a recently released study of the local jail and criminal justice system. The article looked at what the issues identified in chapter two of the study actually look like in practice in the local circuit court. It also laid out some of the research behind the study’s recommendations for change and what some big names in Kentucky have said in recent months about criminal justice reform.

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The story got a lot of people talking; many opinions have been expressed both positive and negative. We’d like to address one opinion we’ve heard a lot. The general argument is along these lines: “These issues aren’t worth worrying about for the rest of us because the people stuck in jail committed crimes. If you don’t want to go to jail, don’t commit a crime.”

That sounds like a simple and straightforward argument, but it actually makes quite a few wrong assumptions. It also ignores the humanity of the people it judges.

For starters, not everyone accused of a crime is guilty. This is why a cornerstone of the U.S. criminal justice system is “innocent until proven guilty.” According to research in the recently released study, essentially everyone indicted by a grand jury in Boyle and Mercer counties winds up with a financial bond — they must go to jail unless they can pay to stay out.

A grand jury indictment is only a step in the criminal justice process; it is not proof of guilt. Here is one of the “don’t commit a crime” argument’s assumptions — that everyone affected by the setting of financial bonds must have committed a crime.

Here’s another assumption: that everyone who committed a crime has been charged appropriately. Our weekend In Focus told the story of one defendant involved in the system. Though charged and then indicted on Class D felonies, this individual is currently in the process of negotiating a plea deal for a misdemeanor charge.

While it’s certainly appropriate to keep dangerous individuals in jail if they can’t be trusted not to reoffend and hurt someone, it seems less appropriate to keep someone in jail on a bond for a felony offense if they really only committed a misdemeanor.

That brings us to yet another problem with the “don’t commit a crime” argument. Like a growing number of local defendants, the individual we profiled in the weekend article is currently out of jail on a small financial bond. As his attorney told us, being out of jail makes it easier for him to not only support his family, find work and maintain his relationships; it also removes pressure created by being in jail to plead guilty to worse charges.

Defendants who can’t get out of jail can lose their jobs and are often unable to support their families. You can imagine if you were in that position, you might be willing to go along with an unfair guilty plea so you can get out, get back to work and get back to your family. The “don’t commit crimes” argument ignores this pressure to plead guilty when you are innocent, or at least guilty of only lesser crimes.

Here’s one more wrong assumption this flawed argument makes: that what happens to people accused of crimes doesn’t affect anyone else. In fact, the cost of jailing people is borne by all of us, because taxpayers fund the Boyle County Detention Center’s budget.

The current year’s budget plans to spend nearly $3 million of Boyle and Mercer taxpayers’ money to keep the jail running. Four years ago, Boyle and Mercer spent just under $2 million on the jail. The individual defendant in the weekend story spent 73 days in jail on a financial bond after being indicted, even though he hadn’t violated any of the conditions of his release. Since it costs about $32 a day to house one inmate, that means taxpayers paid $2,336 for his additional jail time. Zoom out to the jail population as a whole, and savings can really add up — taxpayers could be saved hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars in the long run with smaller average daily populations at the jail.

That’s money that could be spent on improving roads, building parks or economic development. Instead, it’s being spent on incarceration strategies proven to increase the risk of future crime.

But let’s move beyond the argument’s problematic assumptions. At its heart, the argument is actually what’s known today as a “humble brag.” The complexities and gray areas of criminal justice are ignored because the point of the argument isn’t to propose a solution or offer insight; the point is to highlight that the person speaking is not in jail and has done better for themselves than people who are in jail.

When humble brags are employed to point out that you drive a fancy car or take exotic vacations, it might be uncouth, but it’s not a problem. In this case, a humble brag is being used to marginalize and discount the experiences of other human beings. It’s being used to dehumanize “criminals” so those using the argument can feel good about themselves.

That can be especially harmful right now, as the communities in Boyle and Mercer counties are in the process of pursuing truly monumental reforms that could change for the better the local quality of life for a generation or more. Enacted the right way and with strong community support, reforms could lower crime, reduce the number of people in jail and rehabilitate many battling drug addiction. Long-term effects include a healthier, more educated, better employed, more employable and less taxed population.

This isn’t just a pipe dream; it is achievable. But only if we can all work together with a spirit of cooperation and understanding. Negativity and criticism of those less well off to benefit your own ego will only hinder progress.