“No, no!” said the Queen. “Sentence first-verdict afterward.”
“Stuff and nonsense!” said Alice loudly. “The idea of having the sentence first!”
Those lines may be from “Alice in Wonderland,” but they describe all too accurately the kind of justice system that many people would like. Why bother with troublesome things like investigations and trials? Just have the police throw people into the Metropolitan Detention Center and be done with it. After all, everyone knows a criminal just by looking at his or her picture in the paper. But do they?
What if you are accused of a crime? What could happen to you? You could be taken to the Metropolitan Detention Center, have all of your belongings taken from you, get strip-searched and then put into custody with people who have already been convicted. You could stay there for weeks, months and even years before you get an opportunity to have your trial.
And if the jury eventually finds you not guilty? Then you will get a bus ride to Downtown Albuquerque. You may lose your job. You may have been evicted from your residence, with your belongings God knows where. Your booking photo may have been all over the news. You are innocent, you always were, but do not expect a dime in compensation or even an apology as you try to pick up the pieces of your life. If you are lucky, you will have friends and family to support you. Many people are not lucky.
How do the courts try to prevent innocent people from suffering such a travesty of justice? By setting high requirements before a person can be detained pretrial and by following the mandates of legal procedure. Contrary to what The Albuquerque Journal said in its March 1 editorial … judges are not “abdicating their discretion” because they require prosecutors to present enough evidence to convince the judge that a defendant must be detained pretrial. As the United States Supreme Court stated in an important case, “In our society liberty is the norm, and detention prior to trial or without trial is the carefully limited exception.”
The innocent pay the highest price for pretrial detention. The taxpayer also pays for pretrial detention. It is not cheap to keep a person locked up and supervised for 24 hours a day. Money spent on pretrial detention is money that is not available for the kinds of services that help keep people out of jail to begin with. Ironically, the guilty get the most benefit from pretrial detention. They get credit for their pretrial detention against their ultimate sentence.
Keeping everyone locked up until trial is wrong, expensive and illegal. The methods in place to determine who needs pretrial detention are not perfect and probably never will be. Sometimes a person released prior to their trial will commit a noteworthy crime, and the media will be quick to capitalize with sensationalistic coverage. As the New Mexico Supreme Court has said, “We are not oblivious to the pressures on our judges who face election difficulties, media attacks, and other adverse consequences if they faithfully honor the rule of law when it dictates an action that is not politically popular. …”
Judges are under pressure to make pretrial detention something that it is not – a cure for all of society’s ills and the preferred method of dealing with people accused of crimes. If judges bend to that pressure, the result will be even more injustice and dysfunction in our criminal justice system. From time to time, a person on pretrial release will commit a newsworthy crime, but the only way to provide absolute security is to deny freedom absolutely. The whole point of our legal system is to prevent that.