Thursday, September 17, 2015

Poverty and prison

I read with interest the other day this blog post of Rod Dreher's, in which he linked to this Washington Post piece about the trailer park family with whom church shooter Dylann Roof had "crashed" in the time period immediately prior to the shooting.  The profile of Roof's friends, particularly his friend Joey Meek, was interesting and sparked a compelling discussion about the problem of poverty in America.

Now Joey Meek has been arrested:

(CNN)Joey Meek, a friend of confessed Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof, was arrested by the FBI on Thursday, a law enforcement official said.

It was not immediately clear what charges Meek faces. Authorities have been investigating Meek since the June shooting for allegedly knowing about the crime and not telling authorities, the official said.
In the days after the shooting, Meek spoke with reporters with CNN and other media outlets, recounting how Roof had drunkenly vowed one night "to do something crazy."
Meek said he hid Roof's gun that night, but put it back the next day.
"I didn't take him serious,' he said.

After hearing the description of the suspect in the Charleston church shooting, Meek told CNN he called the FBI the next morning, giving authorities detailed descriptions of what Roof was wearing and the license plate on his car.  (Links in original: E.M.)
Obviously, until the details of the arrest and the charges come out, no one can really speculate as to why Meek was arrested or whether any charges against him are justified.  But anyone who read the Washington Post piece linked above can imagine how devastating this arrest is to his mother and the rest of the family.

The problem of poverty is a tangled one to solve, but the reality that the poor are often more likely to have been arrested and to have served jail time is a factor in this problem.  No one recommends lawlessness, and no one thinks that crime should not be properly addressed in society.  But at the same time, statistics like these should be of concern to us all:
Since the 1963 Supreme Court decision, America's prison population has grown more than tenfold—from 217,000 inmates to 2.3 million—largely due to decades of the war on drugs and tough-on-crime policies. It's been nearly impossible for the public defense system to keep pace. In 1973, the National Advisory Council on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals (NAC) issued a report recommending annual caseload maximums for public defenders. They are the only national recommendations of their kind but are considered imperfect. "Many of us don't consider them to be realistic if you expect quality representation," says John Gross of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL). "These standards were established 30-plus years ago when, arguably, criminal cases were a lot less complex." And even so, these recommended caseload limits are consistently exceeded in public defenders' day-to-day practice. On average, a public defender would need about 3,035 work hours—a year and a half—to do a year's worth of work.
About 6,900 more public defenders would be needed to complete the current caseload. It's no wonder that many well-meaning defense lawyers are sucked into a "meet 'em and plead 'em" routine (PD parlance for meeting clients just a few minutes or hours before their hearings and then encouraging them to admit guilt just to get rid of the case). It's a large reason why 90 to 95 percent of their clients plead guilty, says Tanya Greene, an ACLU attorney and capital public defender. "You've got so many cases, limited resources, and there's no relief," she says. "You go to work, you get more cases. You have to triage."

The connection between cycles of poverty and prison are well known.  As followers of Christ we are not permitted to ignore either the poor or the imprisoned.  And that's before we even address the scandal of for-profit prisons, where companies make money on the misery of inmates, some of whom shouldn't even be in prison in the first place.

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