Jailhouse Justice

For all the Christian emphasis on forgiveness and redemption, many if not most churchgoers likely are comfortable with the old maxim, “Do the crime, do the time.” Law-breaking has its consequences in a just society, as it must. Still, the maxim can be dreadfully simplistic. How much time, under what conditions? What about mitigating factors? What about claims of innocence – which sometimes are well-founded, even after juries have returned verdicts of guilty?

Criminal justice becomes justice in name only when sentences are excessive, when conditions of confinement are unnecessarily harsh and when defendants are deprived of their rights to fair treatment in the courts. Policymakers’ decisions that throw the justice system off-kilter may reflect well-intentioned if misguided efforts to save money, or they may amount to cynical pandering to popular tough-on-crime sentiments.

A constant temptation is to let convicted criminals basically stew in their own juices, as if to treat prison inmates decently and fairly – inmates who have forfeited their freedom, after all — were to coddle instead of punish. That seems to be the mindset behind a shortsighted move in the state Senate to zero out funding for the agency that helps prisoners pursue appeals of convictions and claims of abuse.

The Senate’s proposed state budget would scrap the arrangement whereby attorneys with nonprofit N.C. Prisoner Legal Services help inmates with their cases, under a contract costing the state $2.89 million a year.

Instead, the Senate tells the Department of Public Safety (which oversees the state’s 66 prisons) to let inmates do their own research, on computers the department is supposed to install. However, there’s no extra money in the budget for the computers and necessary legal software.

Bradley Bannon, president of Prisoner Legal Services’ board of directors, had this to say in a strong op-ed published in The News & Observer of Raleigh: The Senate’s reasons for canceling the contract and thereby eliminating the agency “make no legal, economic or moral sense.”

Bannon points out that the U.S. Supreme Court, in a North Carolina case, declared that under the Constitution states must make sure prisoners have “meaningful access” to the courts. Prisoner Legal Services was the mechanism set up to carry out that requirement. Clearly, it has been a good investment.

Last year, the state’s 37,000 inmates made 12,000 requests for the agency’s help, Bannon writes. “About nine times out of 10,” he says “PLS counsels inmates that there is no viable legal claim. When there is, PLS often works with administrators to resolve it. When necessary, PLS litigates in court.”

He goes on, “In 2012, for example, after settling seven case involving the rape or sexual abuse of female prisoners, PLS settled three other abuse cases with the Division of Adult Correction in which DAC agreed to implement a number of systemic changes to protect female prisoners from retaliation for reporting abuse.”

The agency essentially pays its own way, Bannon contends, by correcting errors in sentences and allotted jail credits. Applying the right sentences and awarding proper credits saves the state money by ensuring that inmates are released when they’re supposed to be released. He goes on to note that digital law libraries are almost as expensive as his agency’s contract.

More than dollars and cents, what’s troubling about the Senate’s approach is that it puts the “lawyering” burden on inmates. What about the inmate who can barely speak English, or who doesn’t have the wherewithal to act effectively as his or her own attorney? Then there’s the problem of poorly conceived, do-it-yourself lawsuits clogging up the courts. Surely the Prisoner Legal Services approach to resolving grievances is more efficient and effective.

Maybe it’s that effectiveness that bothers some legislators who think proper criminal justice consists of locking ’em up and throwing away the key. Law-breaking has to come with penalties, sometimes stiff penalties indeed. But a justice system that passes the ethical test will make allowances for mistakes and include safeguards against abuse. It will treat offenders fairly, because fair treatment is a moral duty that also lays the groundwork for rehabilitation. The Senate’s spiteful strike against Prisoner Legal Services will stand only if the House and Gov. Pat McCrory go along. Let’s hope they don’t.

–Steve Ford, Volunteer Program Associate

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