I was telling John about my day and my frustrations with the system. I said, “People need to know this. I need to write this so people can understand how f’d up the system is.” He said, “You’re right, but it’s too much. People will not read all of that.” That may be true, but we can’t fix things if we don’t even know they’re broken. I have a front row seat and I must tell you what I see.
The pile of papers in this picture is what came out of jail with a young man in our community. He has been sitting in jail for two weeks for failing to appear in court. I was there to pick him up at the appointed time, but he did not show. It was his own fault. There are character issues and addiction issues that came into play. But it is also true that this young man has a traumatic brain injury that has destroyed his short-term memory. Everything before the accident is clear. But everything since stays in his brain only a few hours. His life is literally the movie “50 First Dates.”
The District Attorney decided to throw the book at him . . . or show him mercy . . . depending on our view. With the choice of a plea bargain or ten years in prison before him, his public defender recommended he take the plea. It turned his 10-year deferred sentence into a 5-year suspended sentence, which means he is to be supervised on probation and fulfill multiple financial and physical requirements for the next five years . . . or else he will go to prison. He’s two strikes down. This is his last chance.
Although he signed the deal, he was still sitting in jail. It took me three days to find the right person to answer why. He had outstanding city tickets that had not been paid (from years ago), so he was sitting out those fines before they would release him.
I spoke with him over the phone every day while he was in jail, and every conversation was the same. Me explaining the situation to him again, telling him about his plea, reminding him that he agreed to this, helping him understand why he was still in jail.
So . . . he comes out of jail with this pile of paperwork. I sit down with him to figure out what it’s all about.
- One paper shows that he sat out $1300 worth of city tickets. (Original fines plus late penalties) In bold letters it says he has 72 hours to report to such and such address to sign some paperwork regarding a hearing he will have in a few months. I wonder why there will be a hearing if he has sat out the cost of these tickets. Hmmmm?
- Another piece says to report to a different location to set up a payment plan for his court costs within 48 hours. (He had already paid off ALL of the court costs on his original case. I helped him do this from his disability check monthly for the last year, but since they rolled it into a “new” case, a whole new set of charges has been applied.)
- A third piece of paper explains the requirements of his plea. He has 5 days to report to the DA’s office. (I read the document several times, but I do not understand it. I have a Bachelor’s Degree in Linguistics. And no traumatic brain injury. There are items check marked, but I have no idea what they actually mean for him to do.)
- A fourth piece of paper is an invoice for cost of time served in county jail: $581.17. (Booking fee, processing fee, food, shelter, etc.) He sat out $1300 worth of tickets and now owes the Sherriff’s office $581.17 for sitting out the tickets. There is nothing on the paper about how to pay this, where to pay, or by what date.
- The rest of the pile of papers is carbon copy repeats of the same documents multiple times and forms detailing the personal items he had in his possession when he went into the jail. At least he held on to all of his papers!
Did I mention this guy has a traumatic brain injury? He has no idea what any of these papers mean, nor does he know how to get himself to these locations. He will not know what day it is or how many days it has been since he got out of jail. I call his public defender’s phone number and leave a message. I call the second day and leave another message. Now it’s time to move.
He and I get in my car with the pile of papers in hand and head downtown where all of these different locations are located. We will complete each paper one at a time and in an orderly fashion.
We first go to the municipal court, where he must sign papers about the upcoming city ticket hearing. After circling the building three times searching for parking, we make our way through the metal detectors to a glass window. I explain the situation and why I’m helping this young man. The woman takes the papers, looks it up in the computer and says, “He sat all of these out in jail. He’s finished. Nothing more required.” I point out, “It says there he has a hearing in November.” She says, “I see that. But there is no reason why he should have to go to a hearing. His fines are all completed.” He smiles. I sigh. We go back to the car.
We drive to the next location, where I decide to pay to park in a parking garage rather than search for a spot on the crowded street. I know where to go in this courthouse, because I’ve been there before, so we once again head through security and to the next office with a counter. I tell this woman the situation and she says, “Hand me the papers, and I’ll help you figure it all out.” I am so grateful. We got a kind person. I include in the pile, his Social Security Disability award letter showing that he is disabled.
She looks through the pile piece by piece, and explains what each one is about. She comments on the invoice, “Well, isn’t that nice? He sits out fines, and now he owes the jail almost half of what he sat out.” She grunts. I’m surprised, but happy that someone working in the system sees how ridiculous this is.
She looks in the computer and starts filling out a form. Then very carefully she explains that because he is disabled and on a fixed income, the statute allows her to waive his court costs—for the time being. He owes $0/month in payments. However, he must come before a judge once a year to show his latest award letter, proving he is still on disability. If his financial situation changes, the payment plan will be adjusted. She said, “It’s very important that he appear in court, or they will issue a warrant for his arrest.” The form she has filled out shows a court date set for one year in the future.
This young man couch surfs or sleeps outside. His monthly income is not enough to pay for housing. I have no idea where he’ll be next week, much less in a year. And even if he had an address, the court doesn’t send out a reminder. He will need to “hold on to this paperwork,” she said, “so that he can remember his court date.” I ask how many years he will need to do this. She says, “For the rest of his life. Unless he wants to go ahead and pay the costs.” When she sees my raised eyebrows and popping eyeballs, she says, “I know. But this is the best I can do to help him.” I thank her, and we go back to the elevator to go upstairs to another office where she thinks someone can help us understand what the District Attorney’s office is going to require of him.
Again I explain the situation to the woman at a third window. She says, “Oh honey, I am not here to get these boys in more trouble. I am here to help them. Give me his papers and we will figure out how to make this as simple as possible.”
She examines the papers, then sits down at a computer, where with furrowed brow she asks me, “Now, why did they roll this into a new charge? His costs were all paid. What was the problem?” I tell her he did not appear for court, and she says, “and they gave him a 5-year suspended sentence?” I say, “Yep,” and she utters what sounds like a growl. Again, I am grateful for a person inside the system that is witnessing it the same way I am seeing it.
This woman spends a half an hour with us! She comes out from behind the window and sits on the couch in the waiting room, explaining paperwork, making sure I understand what the court will expect of him. She personally writes on forms the most accessible and easiest locations and ways for us to get him a “drug assessment” within the next 60 days. He will also need to pass a random urine drug test once a month for the next year. He will need to call the drug treatment place every day and go to be tested on the random day they choose for him. (He has no phone. He has lost six cell phones in the last year and gave up trying to keep one. She says, “Hopefully, he can use your coffee shop phone every day, or you can find him and remind him to make the call.”)
She informs us that he also will need to go back to the jail to receive a DNA swab, so he can be put into a database. She doesn’t know why they didn’t automatically do this while he was sitting in jail, but it’s not in the computer so he has to get it done. He will have to pay $15 for this—but he’d have been charged on that invoice anyway, if they had done it while he was in jail.
He will need to attend a class on such and such date. This is not an option. He must come to this courthouse and not be late. She said, “Look for me. I will help you get to the right location.” I put the date in my phone calendar, but will I see him that day to remind him he has to go? He won’t even remember this couch conversation tomorrow.
I ask her about a bond. I saw something in the papers that said bond. Did he have a bond? It is an OR bond? Will he owe any money for this? She tells me, “I don’t know anything about the bond situation. You can ask about that at the jail when you’re there. You can’t call and ask. No one will answer the phone. So ask when you’re there. Make sure you ask, because if he has a bond and he doesn’t pay, they will issue a warrant.”
Last, she hands us a paper that shows she has reduced his expected payment of $40/month to $20. She tells us she has the flexibility to do that when she sees fit. She finishes by telling him and me that if we have ANY questions to call her, and she will help us. We thank her again and again, and I again sigh gratitude that we found a kind and generous person behind that window. We leave the courthouse with a new pile of papers, her instructions to go to the jail for the DNA test and to work out a payment plan for that invoice, and a reminder that we have 60 days to get the drug assessment completed and the monthly drug tests started.
The difference between this young man’s life and Drew Barrymore's in “50 First Dates,” is he has no supportive family to lovingly help him through each day. His father died years ago. His mother is an addict, who is suffering a long, slow, terminal illness. And due to his own addiction, he has burned all the bridges he had to other family who loved and genuinely did their best to care for him.
If I was not here in this young man’s life . . .
Even though I am here, I am a busy person with my own family and lots of other people for whom I am caring. I barely remember to make my own children’s dentist appointments. Will I remember his?
Even though I am here, I cannot guarantee he will stay around enough for me to help him remember this pile of requirements.
Consequences, cause and effect, these are lost on him. He cannot learn lessons from his mistakes, because he can’t remember them.
And the consequences if he fails any of them? Five years in prison.
Although this is an extreme example because of his traumatic brain injury, this same experience repeats again and again in our community. I’m telling you, tracking down and finding out what the requirements are and then meeting them is a complicated and convoluted process. Not one department seems to know what the others are doing. Paperwork is unclear. No one answers the phone. Miss a deadline or a payment, and you risk incarceration.
Makes me wonder . . . is all of this intentional? Prisons here are private businesses. There’s money to be made by locking up people. Then we can put these people to work for 11 cents/hour. Who should we lock up? How about we end funding for mental institutions, and instead let’s put these people in prison? They’ve got no purpose in our society anyway.
Do I sound angry?
Oh, I haven’t told you his original crime. This is the story his girlfriend told me. She and he were in a fight. The fight became heated, so he left. She chased him down the street with a metal pipe. He knocked the pipe from her hand and put her in a headlock. Her head in his arm, he was walking her back to their house, when the police arrived. His charges: kidnapping and assault and battery.