Dec 27 2010

Hallelujah: Jeremy Marks is Out of Jail!

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the case of Jeremy Marks.

Jeremy, a high school senior, was arrested and charged with “attempted lynching” for using his cell phone to capture an altercation between a police officer and one of his classmates. For over 8 months now, young Jeremy has been behind bars because his family could not afford to post his bail.

Thankfully, a good Samaritan posted Jeremy’s bail last week so that he could spend Christmas with his family.

A Google engineer from San Francisco heard about Marks’ plight, in an exclusive story by Katharine Russ for LA Weekly that created widespread outrage. Here’s why the Google engineer, Neil Fraser, posted $50,000 to get the 18-year-old out of the tough, adult, Pitchess Detention Center:

Neil Fraser is tentatively slated to appear Sunday, Dec. 26 on MSNBC to talk about why he helped a stranger — a boy with a troubled background whose parents transferred him to Verdugo Hills to help him get a fresh start. Fraser also put $1,500 toward Marks’ defense, which was matched by Google.

In Mr. Fraser’s own words:

Short version of the story:

1. Cop catches 15 year old kid smoking at a bus stop in LA.
2. Cop beats up kid, slams his head into the bus and uses pepper spray.
3. More cops arrive. Kid is released without charge.
4. During the incident, several bystanders start recording videos of what the cop is doing.
5. Cops pick Jeremy Marks, a 17 year old student, and arrest him at gunpoint (destroying the evidence on his phone in the process).
6. Since photographing police is still legal in California, they charge him instead with “attempted lynching of a police officer”.
7. The prosecutor makes an offer: plead guilty and he’ll only serve seven years. He declines.
8. Jeremy is thrown in jail, bail is set at an extortionate amount his family can’t afford.
9. He sits in jail for seven months awaiting trial.
10. I hear about the case on Reddit and provide the collateral to get Jeremy out of jail and back to his family for christmas.

First a word to Mr. Fraser… God Bless YOU for stepping up in this way on behalf of a young black man. This gives me hope that it absolutely is possible to build multi-racial coalitions for social change and justice.

Next a word about the issue of bail in our current criminal legal system. I do not think that it can be overstated how UNFAIR the bail system is in this country. If you have resources you get out of jail, if you do not you stay in jail. This is patently and wholly UNFAIR. Recently Human Rights Watch took this issue on in New York City by releasing the results of a two-year study. Some of the study’s key findings are below:

87 percent of defendants whose bail was set at $1,000 or less were jailed following their first court appearance for arraignment and remained incarcerated for an average of almost 16 days. Their crimes: shoplifting, prostitution, turnstile jumping, marijuana, possession of small quantities of drugs, trespassing. None were violent, and none involved weapons. In effect, these people served their sentences before ever being tried, much less convicted, since in many of the cases, the sentences eventually imposed would likely have been less than the time they spent at Rikers Island. These non-felony defendants awaiting trial constitute approximately one quarter of the population on Rikers.

According to Jamie Fellner, senior counsel at the U.S. Program at Human Watch who conducted the study and wrote the report, “Bail punishes the poor because they cannot afford to buy their pretrial freedom.” Fellner found that judges sitting in Criminal Court tend to set bail at amounts that are unaffordable for indigent defendants.

“The pretrial incarceration of persons presumed innocent of minor crimes is a disproportionate and needless curtailment of liberty that is difficult to square with fundamental notions of fairness,” Fellner’s report concludes.

While the report did not provide a breakdown for the races of people affected by the bail policy it noted, “Although blacks and Hispanics combined constitute only 51 percent of New York City’s population population, aggressive law enforcement in minority neighborhoods has led to them comprising 82.4 percent of all arrestees and a similar percentage of all criminal defendants.”

It also cites city Department of Correction figures that 88 percent of people held on bail of $1,000 or less are black and Hispanic.

How can one avoid spending time in jail if you are poor in NYC? That’s simple… Plead Guilty. From the HRW study:

The only way a defendant charged with a misdemeanor or violation such as disorderly conduct can get out of jail quickly when a judge sets bail he or she cannot raise, is to plead guilty. Pleading guilty can mean walking out of the courthouse — particularly if this is the first person’s first arrest — since many of the minor offenses do not carry any jail time, and the defendant has already served 24 hours by the time he or she appears in court. Others pleading guilty may get an Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal, meaning if they don’t get arrested again within the next six months their case is automatically dismissed and sealed or they may receive a conditional or unconditional discharge.

Meanwhile, the defendant who asserts the presumption of innocence remains behind bars. Of the 19,137 non-felony defendants arrested in 2008 whose bail was $1,000 or less, 87 percent were not able to post that and had no one else who could. This helps explain why 99.6 percent of the convictions for misdemeanors are by guilty plea.

In the Jeremy Marks case, because his family could not afford his bail, he has already spent 8 MONTHS in a terrible jail. Remember that he has not been convicted of a thing.

The prosecutors still want this young man to plead guilty and serve 32 months in prison. This is pure INSANITY and his family should take their chances in court. Hopefully others will take Mr. Fraser’s lead and will contribute to help defray some of the court costs associated with this debacle to allow this young man to clear his name and save his life. This is an injustice that the state of California should not be able to get away with. Kudos to L.A. Weekly by the way for shining a bright spotlight on this travesty of injustice.