By Leah Garabedian, Defender Counsel, The National Legal Aid and Defender Association (NLADA)
3DaysCount is a critically important campaign that stands to change the lives of millions of Americans. With nearly 12 million jail admissions each year and nearly half a million unconvicted people behind bars on any given day, the reach of even short periods of detention is immense. The destabilizing effect of hours—let alone days—in jail is horrific to our communities, our economy and, most importantly, to our families.
As a public defender, I spent countless hours in holding cells interviewing clients prior their first appearance before a judge after an arrest. Monday morning interviews were the most painful to experience—people arrested on Fridays who had spent days in jail. They were scared. Anxious. Many times they were mentally ill or suffering from substance use issues or developmental disabilities. Research shows that anywhere between 20 and 80 percent of jail inmates in the U.S. suffer from mental illness and that at least half of incarcerated people have a clinical substance addiction.
Often, they would be held for three days—longer if there was a Monday holiday—because they did not have 300 or 500 or even 100 dollars to post bond. Understandable, as nearly half of Americans say they couldn’t afford an unexpected $400 emergency. In those long days, in the dank, dark, filthy jail cells, removed from anything that felt human, they lost everything. Jobs. Housing. Children.
I begged so many clients not to plead guilty because I believed in their innocence, or at least I knew the case against them was weak and that I could work to get the case dismissed. But a person desperate to get out of jail will plead to almost anything, especially a lower level offense, for time served. In fact, the overwhelming majority—90 to 95 percent—of cases in the U.S. are resolved through plea bargaining. Too often, I have seen those held on low bonds for low level offenses waive the right to counsel and accept a conviction just so they can go home.
So what did three days in jail accomplish? It stripped those people of anything that would keep them from becoming entangled in the criminal justice system in the future. These are factors that we spend time and money trying to re-establish after release from incarceration. For a person who is innocent, or even those who are guilty but low- and medium-risk, three days in jail can be life destroying. Even if your case is dismissed, which many are, you cannot undo the destruction of three days without your meds, without your job, without your children.
Three days count.