The Closer the Better

by Albert B. Kelly, Mayor, City of Bridgeton

Cumberland County will be closing its jail and housing those in the system at jails in other counties. Having decided this is the best course given the circumstances, my hope is that every effort will be made to keep defendants as close to home as possible. I recognize that in some cases, we’re talking about people charged with crimes, some very serious, and that makes it hard to give a damn. In other cases, maybe an offense is less serious.

I understand that inmates as a group are among the least likely to gain our sympathy; add in race and ethnicity, and for some it gets even harder. Yet I remind myself that we’re talking about someone’s family member. That matters, even just a little, because if someone is going to make the decision to try and live within the lines, they’ll need the help and support of the few who genuinely do give a damn.

As a general rule of thumb, families of detainees struggle to keep their heads above the poverty line. This means that a two- or three-hour trip to visit their incarcerated loved one is not easily accomplished. Some might have the means to get there on their own; others will be relying on public transportation and this will cost time and money.

Setting aside the human interest aspects, there is the integrity of our justice system to consider. I’m aware that cynicism rules the day, but at the core of our system there is the presumption of innocence, that someone charged with a crime is assumed to be innocent until they have been proven guilty. This presumption doesn’t translate into people walking free in the community until their day in court—many remain in lock-up—but that’s all the more reason to consider carefully how far we’re willing to separate people from their families and communities.

There’s also the impact on someone’s ability to prepare for a trial. We’re all aware that the vast majority of those serving a sentence are doing so courtesy of the plea agreement; only a small fraction of those serving out a sentence have been convicted by a jury of their peers. This is partly because defending a case costs a lot of money that most defendants don’t have and partly because prosecutors incentivize taking the plea by offering less time than if someone is convicted at trial.

I suppose this is what keeps the system from completely seizing up because if even 20 percent more defendants went to trial, the system might well crash. But for those who actually want to mount a defense at trial, how will distance impact that effort? Hopefully we will limit the distance to nearby counties because the difficulties and costs of traversing the state so that defendant and attorney can meet and plan for trial will place them at an even greater disadvantage.

With public defenders being too few, underpaid, overworked, and overloaded, they’re not able to give either the innocent or the guilty the time and attention needed to make our justice system match our hopes for it. And that was before the pandemic with the jail nearby. Going forward on this side of the virus, fighting through a pandemic-fueled backlog that will take years to clear, it will be that much harder for public defenders to do a competent job if their clients are housed halfway across the state. For the sake of justice the closer to home the better.

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Mayoral Musings