Sunday, January 13, 2008

"The Baton Rouge 10" - Monday Jan 7

In the Baton Rouge criminal justice system, excessive bail for a minor crime is considered especially heinous. In New Orleans for the week, the dedicated law students who interview these inmates and advocate for bail reductions are members of an elite squad known as "The Baton Rouge 10." These are their stories...

Monday Jan 7:
After completing the hour and a half commute from New Orleans, our group of eight 1Ls, one 2L and Prf Colbert arrived in Baton Rouge where the Director of the Public Defender’s office immediately greeted us and showed us to a small conference room that would be our base of operations for the week. He introduced us to the lead attorney and the investigators who would be our colleagues, and they began to explain how we could assist their heavily overloaded docket. Our plan was to go to the local prison after lunch and immediately begin to interview inmates.

For the next few hours we each looked over our notes from the training courses and listening to tips from the investigators and Prf Colbert. Basically our group of 1Ls got a crash course in how to interview a wide range of incarcerated individuals and how exactly to get the necessary information out of them.

As we drove over to the prison our car was eerily quiet as we each contemplated how this experience would play out. Upon arrival at the prison gates we had to each leave IDs with the guards and were only allowed to bring in a legal pad and pen and as the thick fence laced with barb wire slid open all of a sudden the experience got much more real.

Our group of soon-to-be lawyers walked toward the main building and the experience had the feeling of a movie where the main character walks into a climactic situation with a dramatic film score in the background. Although we had no such music, we did have the enthusiasm for a new situation that only law students can exude.

The inside of the prison had a little less security then I expected as eight inmates were guided to the cafeteria without handcuffs and calmly sat against the wall for Pfr Colbert to address them. While this was strange for a moment, I reminded myself that NONE of these individuals had been convicted of a crime and most in were for non-violent offenses and simply could not afford the bail. Our system can seem to favor the rich in so many situations because they have the means to post bond and rejoin their families and jobs after getting in a little trouble, but all of these people could not afford the (usually obscenely) high bail and therefore would sit in jail for 45-60 days before the District Attorney had to even decide to prosecute them or not (this is usually called DA’s time). To tell you the truth, I'm still not sure of the rationale of a system that holds (poor) people in prison for extended periods of time waiting to the DA to “get around” to your case.

Today I interviewed two men who had been in prison since late May (not officially charged by the DA until July) who could not afford their bail. As I began the interview I tried to remember as much of our training as I could and Prf Colbert and our 3L supervisor Anna Deady were amazing resources for questions and support throughout the entire process. Our goal was to get as much information from them to start a file in the PD's office with vital information such a family in the area, residence, employment, and education. This information could be used to argue in front of a judge that the bail should be reduced to an affordable level because the person was a good candidate to return to court for trial and was not a danger to the community.

As a 1L with minimal knowledge of the bail system sometimes I had trouble answering the common questions of my friends and family: Why are you doing the work you are doing? Why should people’s bail be reduced? Well for one thing the right to bail that is not excessive is guaranteed by the 8th Amendment. Thus, those charged with a crime have a constitutional right to pre-trial release upon certain circumstances. But the specific conditions of release and the bond the court requires to ensure your return is a large point of controversy in the legal community.

In total, this trip was truly amazing because it brought my head out of the theories and hypos of our legal tomes and showed us how the system actually affects people’s lives. There is more that should go into considering someone's bail then simply the nature of their crime. An important aspect is the risk that the individual will flee the community and not return for trial. This risk is determined by factors such as a supportive family in the area, a place to live, a job to go back to (or educational level to get another job), and children to support. Also we studied the individuals record of appearing for past trials as someone who never missed a court date could make a compelling argument to not miss one in the future. Other things taken in consideration is the individual’s threat to commit future crimes which can be determined from his or her criminal record.

When we left the prison at 4:30 our day was injected with a newfound sense of purpose as we knew that much work lay ahead. That evening we proceeded to make telephone calls to the family members and employers the inmates gave us to verify the information and wrote it all up in a form that would be best for the PD's office. There are some amazing tales of student interaction with family members but I will leave that up to them to tell you. Our first day offered only a preview of the challenges to come and it was a great start to a great week.

Next post... Convincing family members to come to court (while they never speak to anyone but a law student) and later, a venture into the judge's lair to advocate for our inmates.

All new episodes of the Baton Rouge 10 coming soon...

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