In the US, we are hooked on punishment, retribution and revenge and call that justice. The result? With over 2.3 million people locked up, we have duly earned the title, the "Incarceration Nation." That 2.3 million means one in every one hundred adults in this country is behind bars. Our incarceration rate is staggering.
What about the people at the center of this misery, the men and women behind bars? Each has a story that reflects our diversity and the entangled events of life. I got to know one of them, Daudi Beverly, when his mother called me for advice. She was desperately trying to find ways to help her son who was being swallowed up in a criminal system that she didn't understand but which she knew could destroy him.
She called me because I'm an attorney, but I don't handle criminal cases. Nonetheless, as a mother, or perhaps because I am part of the system that was the cause of her terror, her plea was one I couldn't refuse. I offered to walk with her through this process and, as I did, I saw firsthand how interwoven and complex the misery has become. Daudi has a lot to teach us about the depth of our nation's systemic failures.
Daudi falls into the category of the one in nine black men between the ages of twenty and thirty-four whom we incarcerate--then largely forget. He is also one of the millions of mental patients, many released from state and county facilities in the 1950s-"1980s, who represent the majority of people now behind bars in the United States. We would like to forget them, too.
One safety net after another that was supposed to help Daudi failed to help, and sometimes made things worse. He had to rely on public mental health because he didn't have insurance and couldn't afford private care. When he didn't show up for his mental health appointments (because he was mentally ill), his file was closed for lack of compliance. This meant that the medications that he needed to treat his mental illness were no longer provided.
That's just one example of the type of systemic failures that made up the context in which his crime was committed. It was several months after being without medication that the assault occurred. While he was being held for trial, he was first found to be mentally incompetent to stand trial. He was then provided his medications and found to be mentally competent in time for the trial to proceed.
The problem is that we rarely consider the context in which all of this brokenness happens. We focus narrowly on what crime was committed, who committed it and what type of punishment will they get. We are discouraged from even mentioning the deeply entrenched patterns, the history, the inequities we take for granted, that set the stage for the crime we then devote so much attention to. In a different context, Daudi would never have committed this crime. Had his mental health file not been closed and his medications continued, he would not have committed this crime.
Sitting next to Mary during the trial was difficult. She desperately wanted to tell the elderly white woman and her family how sorry she was that this tragic event had occurred. She wanted to apologize for the serious injuries her son had inflicted and for her inability to keep him on medication.
Daudi also wanted to say he was sorry, but his attorney advised both of them to initiate no contact with the victim. Daudi's attorney probably feared a possible admission against interest, that his client would admit the truth and his own words would be used against him. In this adversarial format, if Mary reached out, that could easily be construed as harassment. Our punitive justice system rewards a skillful attack, but often stands in the way of attempts to reconcile.
When it was time for Daudi to be sentenced, the prosecutor asked that he be given twenty years due to the heinous nature of his crime, five more years than the maximum cited in the sentencing guidelines. Instead, the judge sentenced him to ninety years: fifty for the robbery and twenty each for the other two offenses, then suspended all but twenty-five.
Since we have abolished parole, Daudi will serve twenty-five years at society's cost of about one teacher's salary per year. Actually, inmates like Daudi who have mental disorders can cost far more than that; in Daudi's case, the cost was contained for a long time by keeping him in isolation twenty-three hours a day.
After Daudi's conviction, I assisted Mary in being named Daudi's legal guardian, a civil matter I could handle. This enables the prison administrators to speak to her about his health care and, if he is ever released, she can see that he receives treatment. After being presented a summary of his medical history, the same judge who sentenced Daudi to what probably amounts to a life sentence, without hesitation, signed the order that said Daudi was not competent to manage his own affairs.
Some will see Daudi as solely responsible for his actions, saying this is just another black-on-white crime. But this is a story about all of us--our failure to care for one another, our desire for quick fixes and easy answers, and our silent acceptance of a seriously flawed system that extracts an enormous price. We pay financially, and we also pay with our humanity.
And yet, according to our complex system of criminal laws, "justice" was done. Daudi had his day in court: the state paid for his representation by counsel, the judge followed the rules of due process, and the victim got her say. But was justice satisfied in this case? Or does justice require more substance? In Daudi's case, and in the cases of many among the other 2.3 million like him who are behind bars, few people ask those questions.
Our dysfunctional patterns continue for decades, defended with the argument that we could do worse. It's time to say no, we must do better.
Posted on GenuineJustice.com 11-17.10.