Home Politics Hidden Crisis: Americans Spend Years in Jail Without Being Convicted

Hidden Crisis: Americans Spend Years in Jail Without Being Convicted

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One of the central tenets of our entire criminal justice system is the idea that every American who is accused of a crime has the right to a fair and speedy trial before jail time. This is guaranteed under the 6th Amendment to the US Constitution and thus, should be a bedrock right, not to be infringed upon by any prosecutor. Sadly, just because Americans are due a right, it doesn’t mean that the application of the law in any way resembles this ideal.

While the media rarely covers this issue, there is an ongoing constitutional crisis in our justice system, where Americans accused of crimes are being held in jail for years before they are brought to trial and adjudicated guilty or innocent. As everybody accused of a crime is presumed innocent until proven guilty, this means that, at any point in time, our nation is imprisoning thousands of innocent men and women needlessly, depriving them of their constitutional rights.

Graphic by Colin Tooley
Graphic by Colin Tooley

This isn’t to say that everybody who is accused of a crime and thus is being held in jail is actually innocent, merely that they have a right to their day in court days, weeks or even months after being arrested, instead of years.

One good illustration of the failure of our criminal justice system to address this issue is the case of Steven Harris, who was just released this week after serving 11 years in jail before prosecutors decided to drop their case against him. Harris is a schizophrenic man who is accused of killing his father, kidnapping two women, and getting into a shootout with police and, in all fairness, the evidence of his guilt is pretty much unassailable. Unfortunately, no jury ever got to hear this evidence or decide his guilt, as he spent the last decade being housed at a local jail while his case lay dormant. Now, to avoid a scandal, and in light of Harris’s severe mental illness, the prosecutors have decided to drop the charges and let him obtain treatment at a local mental hospital.

A cynical view of this situation is that these prosecutors knew that they couldn’t actually convict such a mentally ill man, so they buried his case and kept him in jail, instead of having him acquitted on mental health grounds and sent to treatment. Conversely, a very charitable view of this situation is to take the prosecutors at their word and to believe them when they said that he “fell through the cracks” in the system. Put simply, either is untenable and unconstitutional.  

This situation is mirrored in many situations across the United States. While some of those detained for years without trial are eventually convicted, many are determined to be 100% innocent. One such case that became famous was the case of Khalif Browder, who was held at Rikers Island in New York for over three years after being accused of stealing a backpack when he was 16. This case was particularly egregious, as the police had no evidence, didn’t find the stolen property on his person, and based the entire prosecution on a witness who kept changing his story. In fact, they kept trying to get Browder to plead guilty right up until being forced to admit that they didn’t actually have a case.

One of the common threads for these cases of excessive pre-trial detention is poverty. Those impacted by these long wait times are almost always poor, thus unable to hire a lawyer who can keep on their case and force prosecutors to hold a trial in a reasonable amount of time (or face a motion to dismiss or force the trial to proceed called a “speedy trial motion”). Similarly, many of the Americans who are forced to spend their pre-trial years in jail are poor and thus unable to afford bail money. A few thousand dollars can break a family budget, and it is often impossible for poor families to afford the bail required to get one son out of jail, while still feeding their other children.

As a final insult, those who are victims of this system are rarely eligible for financial payments to help them make up for lost time (not that money really makes up for being innocent and in jail) and in many cases, they are simply released with a cursory “sorry, our bad” and no help getting them back on their feet.

Even when the victims of this system are given a support structure after being released from prison, some still never recover. Khalif Browder is one example of such a victim of the system, and he killed himself after being released due to the chronic depression and anxiety he developed while spending years in jail (including two years in solitary confinement, which has been shown to damage brain development in teens and produce mental illnesses).

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