Saturday, November 14, 2015

Natapoff on innocence and the misdemeanor plea mill

Alexandra Natapoff this week presented a particularly sagacious version of innocence advocacy in the Washington Post (Nov. 11), titled, "The cost of ‘quality of life’ policing: Thousands of young black men coerced to plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit." The piece confronts, in virtuoso fashion, some of the same topics which the Innocence Project of Texas recently recommended the new Timothy Cole Exoneration Review Commission take on: Particularly the pressure on innocent defendants to plea guilty to small-time offenses because of pretrial detention. Wrote Natapoff:
Once charged, the misdemeanor process then exerts enormous pressure on individuals to plead guilty, especially if they are stuck in jail because they cannot make bail. As a result, many of them end up convicted of crimes they never committed, such as loitering, trespassing, disorderly conduct, or resisting arrest. It can happen to anyone, but because we overpolice young black men in low-income neighborhoods for precisely these types of minor crimes, it’s more likely to happen to them.
That's exactly right. Grits has declared before that I consider Sasha Natapoff a personal intellectual hero, and I don't use the h-word lightly. She's one of those rare thinkers who, whenever she considers a question deeply, the world becomes a better place as a result. Her work on informants revealed a rich vein of deep moral thinking and critical analysis which I predict the criminal-justice reform movement will mine for ideas for the next three decades. Then, her work on misdemeanors once again took a portion of the system that's treated as a relatively obscure backwater and charted a navigable route toward addressing false convictions, arguably, at a deeper and more profound level than one could ever reach exclusively through post-conviction means. As she sees it:
Such wrongful convictions represent the convergence of two of our criminal system’s worst flaws: its racial skew and its rush to convict.  Think of it as Black Lives Matter meets the innocence movement.  Our criminal system is widely criticized for targeting and overpunishing African Americans and communities of color.  But that longstanding criticism has generally focused less on whether minority defendants are actually guilty, and more on the disproportionate targeting and racism built into the system. Conversely, the innocence movement has shaken the criminal justice world by uncovering hundreds of wrongful convictions in very serious cases like rape or murder. But it has not zeroed in on the much larger pool of innocent defendants coerced into pleading guilty to minor crimes every year.

Why do these wrongful convictions remain invisible?  One reason may be the common belief that a petty conviction is no big deal. But minor convictions have major consequences. A misdemeanor conviction can deprive a person of a driver’s license, public housing, student loans, or legal immigration status. Even an arrest record can interfere with job prospects, and most employers say they check criminal records before hiring. True, the typical formal punishment for a misdemeanor is probation or a fine, not incarceration. But many offenders end up in jail anyway for failure to pay fines they cannot afford. In short, the misdemeanor process is probably burdening thousands of innocent African-Americans not only with the stigma and indignity of a wrongful conviction, but a crushing array of collateral consequences.
The structural problem lies with the misdemeanor system itself, the front-line mechanism through which we disproportionately sweep African-Americans up into the criminal system and label them, often inaccurately, as criminals. If we made the effort to expose these wrongful minor convictions, we might also accomplish something even more fundamental: disrupting the mythological link between blackness and criminality. That insidious myth, which dates back to slavery and still infects many aspects of American culture and governance, won’t be eliminated overnight.  But we — and our presidential candidates — can take a step in the right direction by recognizing that many of the young black men we convict of minor crimes and then treat as criminals for the rest of their lives are actually innocent.
Because of overcriminalization, some of the low-level offenses Natapoff discusses are actually felonies in Texas, like possessing less than a gram of a controlled substance, but her points are still well taken.

There are many brands of false convictions besides the case of the rape victim who mistakenly identifies an innocent man as her assailant, even though that's the storyline in a huge number of DNA exonerations to date. More common and insidious, though, may be false convictions for lesser offenses based not so much on honest error as coercion and expedience. Those false convictions the innocence movement has barely considered, much less begun to address.


Anonymous said...

Interesting story in today's NYT Apparently authorities in one town there are stooping to fining people for offenses that are not even listed in the municipal code.

Anonymous said...

It is happening to ALL RACES!! Young and old, poor and dumb. In small counties the Courts tell them to take the plea or go to jail. They are not appointed an attorney even if they qualify!

What can be done?? Nothing! Why? A County Attorney rules the court system and they feel they only answer to the voters! Not legislators!

Nothing is going to change!!

Thomas R. Griffith said...

Grits, Natapoff may be a personal hero of yours but when it comes to flinging one color other the rest, it leaves me no other option than to call 'Bullshit'. Since this posting is attempting to convince the reader that the police are targeting blackmen over other young & poor men simply because they are young & black, I'm forced to intervene. When they have a motto – arrest’em all & let the courts handle it, they go out and arrest ‘em all. They just don’t let the non-blacks get up and walk away. Sorry but, it’s a numbers game not a colors game. It does appear that you caught this and attempted to shore it up and for that I thank you.

If you remove the words black, African-American, blackness from the piece and replace them with - young, poor, humans you'd have a pretty good read that makes perfect sense. How would I know, because I was there and live it, on a daily basis (not just simply writing about it). Fwiw, when the Rigged & Rogue system is allowed to utilize the Misdemeanor Courts as - One Foot-In-One-Foot-Out gateways to prison with: the young & poor humans being the catalyst, you get - overcrowded jails & prisons via: no jury trials (aka: the Texas TapOut), where the Guilty as Hell & the Not Guilty all look the same in tickytac jumpsuits and / or white clothing & brogains. Despite the color of the suspect turned defendant’s ears, Probation sounds way better than spending 4 to 6 months in the county,‘until’, you are falsely arrested again and get no bail and get another Fake CDL advising you to – “Stop the trial, take the plea, despite a Guilty or, Not Guilty verdict, you are going to prison simply for being arrested due to your probation being revoked upon arrest”. I call it the Daniel R. Jackson Effect. It starts with: bad cops, rogue ADAs, fake CDLs, enabling bench warmers and ends with everyone winning. And for that occur, it truly takes a Team Effort.

Anonymous said...

Griffith has a point and a good one. From what I see it is a MONEY game, not a colors game. Of course, the young unemployed black men are less likely to have money and a good support network, so WHAM-O they end up behind bars. No need to play the color card, it is a money card.

Prison Doc

Gritsforbreakfast said...

TRG and Prison Doc, first, read her theories in the piece linked under "work on misdemeanors" for her full analysis, in which the mechanisms she's describing are all deeply grounded in economics. She thinks racial disproportionality in misdemeanors comes from overpolicing of minority neighborhoods - put more cops in one neighbhorhood than another, you get more petty arrests there. That seems pretty much undeniable to me and jibes with police deployment patterns I've seen.

And while I myself tend to emphasize economics over race, and think many allegations of police racism are unfortunate and overblown, pretending the system is color blind ignores reality. It's really not. It's just that we're dealing with an institutional brand of racism, not guys in sheets. But that doesn't mean that people complaining of disproportionate outcomes don't have a legitimate beef - especially on the drug war and misdemeanor offenses. Pretending otherwise IMO is intellectually dishonest. One can think some liberals over-emphasize race, but to claim it's a complete non-factor requires ignoring way too much recent American history.

And TRG, yes, you've lived it. But as it turns out, that doesn't make you an expert, just like cattle are not experts on butchering.

Thomas R. Griffith said...

And TRG, yes, you've lived it. But as it turns out, that doesn't make you an expert,

... yes, you lived it and will live it for the rest of your life.
There you go, fixed it.

Fwiw, writing theories about shit one personally never experienced vs. actually living the shit equals to - no one on either side claiming to be a friggin so-called 'expert'.

Just like writing a Blog or, sponsoring an article about someone's shitty theories doesn't make me assume that when you: write, comment or, reply to comments, that you are an expert. In order to get that and my 'Call', I guess you'd have to actually personally live it as more of that of a victim of the same system she refers to, that's experienced it up close & personal. As for defending a hero, you get an A. But, this Unexhoneratable still calls Bullshit when folks of any color attempt to throw colors at the problem, when in fact it's nothing more than a damn Rigged & Rogue system allowed to run amuck in both: Misdemeanor and Felony courts, where the 'POOR' (of all colors) are targeted by police of all colors. It's basically a war on crime that ensnares the poor in order to feed the anti-jury-trial Teams via: plea mills (Guilty or, Not). Allowing for 'one' plea per case with mandatory full jury trials all the way to verdict is the solution.