There are two tiers of justice in this country and I should know. I was a beneficiary of the better one.
A year ago, I was charged for possession of a gram of cocaine, which was found when police responded to reports of alleged gun use at the San Francisco Armory, home of the adult production studio, Kink.com.
I had a great lawyer and the charges were eventually dropped. But how would I have fared if I had not had the money, or a different skin color? Unfortunately, I think I know the answer because I witnessed it.
As with any arrest, the experience was completely terrifying. I was taken in handcuffs to the local station and transported to the downtown jail for processing. The first indication that I was in a privileged situation came when I picked up the phone in an attempt to get bailed out. Rather than having to explain my financial situation, I was greeted with a friendly response “Ah Peter, your lawyer is already in my office.” Bail was arranged and I was out by 5AM.
The people in the cell with me were mostly people of color, mostly poor, all terrified. Since I had, in fact, been caught with the cocaine on my person, my inclination would have been to plead guilty. But my lawyer immediately advised against it. “We can fight this.”
And we did. It turned out that while the police did their job, there were technical problems with the arrest (there were insufficient “exigent circumstances” to void the need for a warrant to enter the premises.)
But how would I have fared if I were poor, confused and dependent on an overworked public defender managing dozens of other cases, for a fraction of what my lawyer made for one? Watching the legal process, I was struck by all the advantages I had. At each court hearing, my case was heard first. My lawyer was able to present our legal opinion in the judges. I was able to pay for research and briefs that made our arguments more effective. Eventually, the case was thrown out. My reputation was bruised, and I was humiliated but not incarcerated.
For most people in those courtrooms, however, the experience was drastically different. Some didn’t speak much English. Few seemed to have any money, let alone private lawyer with the time and resources to study the intricacies of their case. Had they, many of them might have had their cases dismissed.
Had I had a public defender, you can bet I would not have had the case dropped. With no prior record, I am guessing I would have ended up with a ‘deferment’, which entails 6-12 months of drug tests and taking classes, followed by a dismissal. One is only eligible for a ‘deferment’ once. The second time I would have had a felony conviction which could have lead to the loss of my immigration status in the US. (I’m a British national.)
For those who are poor or have dependency issues, non-violent felony convictions can quickly add up and have a devastating impact on their lives.
In 1994, California passed a three-strikes sentencing law, which mandated a life sentence for third felony conviction — even if the crime was non-violent, like drug possession or shoplifting food. As a result, there are currently thousands of people in jail due to (what I consider to be) grossly unfair minimum sentencing rules which apply to non-violent felony charges. More people are in jail in the US than any other country in the world, including China. And what’s the goal again? Drug addiction is a medical condition, not a reason for a 15+ year sentence.
Seeing this differential, my wife and I decided to support a San Francisco-based non-profit, the Three Strikes Justice Center. In 2012, voters approved Proposition 36, which allows for non-violent offenders to have their mandatory life sentences reduced. The Three Strikes Justice Center raises awareness among inmates about the changes to the law, and helps non-violent inmates get their mandatory life sentences reduced. (Many inmates don’t even have the money for postage to inquire about eligibility.) However, there isn’t enough money or lawyers to process all the claims (there are thousands) — and the deadline for appeals is this November.
So on Wednesday, August 6, we’ll be hosting a fundraiser for the Three Strikes Justice Center at the Armory Club, just across the street from where I was arrested. There will be speakers, including Alton McSween, a former NFL player who, after problems with dependency, was arrested for petty theft and given a life sentence. Thanks to lawyers like those at the TSJC, he’s now free and working on behalf of others.
I realize we have a long way to go before justice is truly blind, and those tiers of justice are leveled. But as someone who was given the benefit of strong legal counsel, and had access to that top tier, I feel it’s my obligation to help those who didn’t. I hope to see you on Wednesday, and talk with you about my experience and the help we need to give these people. If not, I hope that you’ll consider supporting the Three Strikes Justice Center in its race against time and money.
The Benefit for the Three Strikes Justice Center will be at the Armory Club, 1799 Mission St on Wednesday August 6, from 5:30PM-8:30PM