The People Behind the Why

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Release Date: 
Thursday, January 2, 2020

Tyler, our VISTA member in Connecticut, writes below on the individuals behind the big numbers of the criminal justice system.

When I sat do with Joe* I was struck by the size of him. At 6’3” and built like a linebacker his hand enveloped mine when he shook it, introducing himself like an old friend. But what was even more compelling was the way he possessed the room. He had a quick melodic voice that tended to slip into Spanish when he talked about his family and a way of laughing that made even the Court Marshal chuckle along.

Joe had been incarcerated for five months prior, awaiting a hearing that had been delayed multiple times. His attorney was confident that with the time served he’d be out in time to see his daughter for Christmas, something he kept reminding us that he wanted to do. His story I pieced together between him joking with the Marshals, telling me about the neighborhood his family lived in, and bragging how his attorney was allowing him to speak in front of the judge because he spoke so well (from all the reading he had done during a prior incarceration, he explained). Joe had broken parole and left the treatment program he’d been in. He was concerned by all the people talking about suicide and drug use and felt like he was going to relapse. Immediately he knew he’d made a mistake and turned himself in.

When Joe stood before the judge he shrunk. The high ceilings swallowed his voice, he had to be told three times to speak up. The man who I had seen just moments before confident and intelligently telling me about the mistakes he had made and the changes he wanted to make was reduced to a stuttering, nervous wreck, dwarfed by the height of judge on her bench. Before he was able to finish the judge cut him off. She’d decided he hadn’t made enough of his opportunities – beds and programs are hard to come by you know. He needed to be punished. She sentenced him to fifteen months. Joe wouldn’t be seeing his daughter for Christmas.

            When it’s determined that things are going wrong, it’s very easy to get bogged down in the numbers of things; to focus on the tangibles that are easy to describe and palatable to understand. Reduce something to a catchy tag line and throw it into a stump speech. When we’re talking about the United States’ criminal justice system, I could sit here and write about the obscene caseloads that public defenders face, the hours worked versus hours billed, the near constant cuts in budgets and reductions in staff, and I’m sure that the whole thing would be well and truly shocking to many people. But numbers in isolation don’t mean anything. They’re reductive and by focusing in on the issues as numbers we’re shrinking the people they represent down to nothing more than a digit. They no longer have a face, a voice, a name: Joe.

This is why the work that I and the rest of the NLADA VISTA members are doing matters. We already know the statistics, we have seen that shocking data and we’re ready to do something about it. Our task is to know the scope. I know that I can’t change the course of the criminal justice system on my own, but I am not doing this on my own. Our work is about getting into the communities that our attorneys and social workers are serving, bringing their voices to the table and making sure that they all are heard, not as a number but as a person. Because where a single voice can be lost, when everyone is working together, calling for the same thing, it’s not an easy thing to ignore.



*name and details changed for confidentiality