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Reveal: And justice for some

Posted: November 1, 2016 at 2:17 pm by , in Featured, Reveal

Unless you’ve been caught up in the justice system, most of our understanding of courts come from what we see on TV.

In popular dramas like “Law & Order,” everyone gets a lawyer, the crime is usually solved in a neat and timely way, and – of course – justice is served. But in real life, it doesn’t always work that way. On this week’s episode of Reveal, we take a look at the cracks in the system that prevent people from getting a fair shake.

Image: Anna Vignet for Reveal

Take something as simple as bail. It’s supposed to keep you from languishing in jail while you wait for your day in court.

On July 10, 2015, Sandra Bland was arrested during a traffic stop and couldn’t post the $515 bond to get out of Waller County Jail in Hempstead, Texas. Three days later, she was found hanged in her cell. Her death was ruled a suicide. Many experts say Bland should never have been in jail in the first place.

Getting locked up for failure to pay bail affects hundreds of thousands of other people across the country.

This week, we’re going to begin an occasional series we’re calling And Justice for Some – an investigation into how the courts treat people differently, depending on how much money they have, their race or gender.

Our partners at the Houston Chronicle start us off with a look at the Harris County Jail, the third largest in the country. Even a short stay at the Harris County Jail can be life threatening –  especially for defendants with depression, mental illness or chronic health problems. A Houston Chronicle investigation found that from 2009 to 2015, 55 people died in the Harris County Jail – pretrial.

Producer Peter Haden takes us to bond court, where large groups of defendants pour into the room every three hours in a process that feels like a cattle call. They appear in front of a judge and a prosecutor through a video link on a big TV set. No defense lawyers are there. An individual hearing can take less than a minute.

Critics say the bonds, even amounts as low as $500, hurt poor people the most. And that has a disproportionate impact on communities of color. Sometimes, defendants will plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit just to get released.

In New Mexico, a Supreme Court justice is trying to reform the cash bail system in a state that for years has had one of the highest pretrial detention rates in the country.

The United States and the Philippines are the only two countries in the world where bail is a commercial business. And here, it’s a multimillion-dollar industry wedged between the desire to protect poor people who can’t afford bond and the public against suspects accused of violent crimes who can afford to pay for their release.

But changing the bail system can be bad for business for some people. Dog the Bounty Hunter is involved in efforts to kill the reform proposed by New Mexico Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles W. Daniels that, if approved by voters next month, would amend the state constitution.

Jeff Proctor, of New Mexico In Depth, and Reveal’s Andy Becker, bring us the story.

Being poor isn’t the only thing working against people who show up at court. Our final story is about a mother in Alabama fighting to regain custody of her daughters.

A courtroom can be a terrifying place. The language of the court is complicated even for native English speakers. Language issues are compounded for non-English speakers. State courts across the country are required to provided interpretation in criminal trials and juvenile cases.

For 16 years, the Justice Department has made it clear – courts that receive federal funding are required to comply with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which includes providing interpreters.

But some state courts have been slow or unwilling to comply. In 2005, a Tennessee judge mandated that a mother who speaks Mixteco, an indigenous language from Mexico, learn English in order to get her kids back. In 2008, the Mississippi Department of Human Services took away the newborn baby of a woman who spoke another indigenous language, Chatino, without giving the mother an interpreter. In Nebraska, in 2009, a mother from Guatemala had her kids taken away. She was never given an interpreter and was deported back to her home country.

In practice, the judge in each courtroom has discretion over whether to offer interpretation. Ashley Cleek brings us the story of a Mixteco-speaking mother in Alabama, and how a case can go wrong without an interpreter.

DIG DEEPER