Even in 2014, it is still possible to come across facts about the American justice system that stagger even the most cynical of minds. For example: do you know how long people are sitting in jail in Mississippi without being charged with a crime?
Imagine you are arrested. You are taken to jail. Even if you could not make bail, you would expect (being an American, in America) to meet your public defender relatively soon, to get on with the mechanics of your case. You are, after all, presumed to be innocent.
In the great state of Mississippi, your experience might be somewhat different. The ACLU yesterday filed a lawsuit against Scott County, Mississippi, charging that the way they handle prisoners violates their right to a fair and speedy trial. From the ACLU:
That's how it works in Scott County: No one gets a public defender until they've been indicted. In other places, this might not be a big deal. In Colorado, prosecutors have 72 hours after an arrest to formally indict someone. In Kansas, it's two weeks. But in Scott County and throughout Mississippi, the wait could last forever. That's because Mississippi doesn't limit how long a prosecutor has to indict someone, even if that someone is wasting away in jail.
In Scott County, felony indictments are only issued three times a year, after a grand jury convenes to formally charge defendants with their crimes. If you're lucky, you might wait two months to hear about your charges. If you're unlucky, you're put off until the next session. That's at least another four months in jail.
You could, as a matter of course and not as anything out of the ordinary, be arrested for a crime in Scott County, Mississippi and spend six months in jail waiting to be indicted and then have a grand jury conclude that they will not charge you with a crime after all. This would be considered a fair outcome under a normally functioning system of criminal justice. That is so fucked up that it should blow your mind if you possess even the faintest ability to put yourself in the shoes of someone in Scott County, Mississippi.
Part of the problem is that the public defender system is funded on a county-by-county basis, so certain counties do everything they can to keep those costs low, including not giving defendants access to a public defender until after they have spent months in jail, without being convicted or even charged with a crime. A broader, more overarching part of the problem is that many people involved in the administration of our criminal justice system—in Mississippi, certainly, but also across this nation—do not give a shit about the suffering of people in their care.