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A 'fair and speedy trial' is a pipe dream for many poor Americans
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A 'fair and speedy trial' is a pipe dream for many poor Americans

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While most Americans believe arrested people go to court soon after their arrest, Constitutional guarantees of a “fair and speedy trial” are infrequently honored in our under-resourced criminal justice system, according to a study produced by the Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center at the Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law.

Over 30 states lack laws that establish a firm deadline for initial appearances, requiring only that such appearances occur “within a reasonable time,” with the result that individuals can be held behind bars for weeks before seeing an attorney, charge the report’s authors.

The burden of the chronic “Initial Appearance Crisis” falls disproportionately on Black people, who are far more likely to be detained before trial than white people because they lack money for bail or for legal counsel.

“Not only is a larger proportion of the Black population in jail, but available research shows that Black people are far more likely to be detained before trial than white people,” the report said.

That has far-reaching consequences, the report said.

The long wait for a trial means that “witnesses’ memories may fade, and essential evidence may disappear,” the researchers said, adding that community and family stability and health also suffer while .a court date is pending.

“A defendant may lose their job, home, or family,” said the report.

Jointly funded by Arnold Ventures and The Koch Foundation, the report outlines the consequences of the Constitutional “silences” surrounding the lengthy timeline of post-arrest court appearances.

According to the authors — Pamela R. Metzger, Janet C. Hoeffel, Kristin M. Meeks, and Sandra Sidi — initial appearance involves a judge advising an arrested person of their rights, informing them of the charges they face, and offering the defendant a chance to contest the charges.

When the process fails to operate promptly, not only are arrested people left waiting for weeks — and even months — in jail, but they also lack the opportunity to argue for pretrial release.

“What is a “reasonable” amount of time for a defendant to wait in jail for someone to actually start to defend them? The Supreme Court has never said,” the authors assert.

The “reasonable time” permitted under many state statutes can quickly stretch into months, as in the case of Jessica Jauch, a resident of Choctaw County in Mississippi.

A Mississippi grand jury indicted Jauch on felony drug charges, issuing a warrant for her arrest that ultimately ended in her incarceration. As Jauch urged jail officials to let her go to court, state law permitted Jauch’s appearance to wait “until the next term of court” — a date three months after her arrest.

After 90 days in jail, Jauch had her first court appearance. When she was released six days later, surveillance footage confirmed she was innocent of the drug charges.

Regardless of state law, many arrested people wait in jail without a court appearance due to patterns of local malpractice.

“People who are in jail cannot work or meet their family obligations,” the authors write.

“They are frightened about what may happen, and — because they have not had an initial appearance — they have little information about the legal process. Additionally, jails are violent, cramped, and frightening places. A person who is in jail before trial may suffer long-term trauma or physical injury.”

The authors provocatively compared the situation in many parts of the country to authoritarian regimes where individuals arrested by police “disappear” behind bars with no trace.

“Lengthy detentions between arrest and a first court appearance mimic the police ‘disappearances’ so common under authoritarian regimes,” the authors wrote. “The Constitution guarantees that no one will be jailed without access to the courts or an attorney.

“Yet, the initial appearance crisis allows people to languish in jail alone, afraid, and undefended.”

To resolve the initial appearance crisis, the authors recommend that state and local governments pass laws that require in many parts initial appearance within 24 hours after arrest, which minimizes the likelihood of coerced confessions and expedites a person’s pretrial release.

Sheriffs, police chiefs, and jailers should enforce this timeline, notifying courts and prosecutors if a person is detained more than 24 hours without an initial appearance.

Additionally, the criminal legal system can promote meaningful representation at an initial appearance by guaranteeing a private attorney-client conversation before the defendant sees the judge. To handle the defense, attorneys should be appointed within 72 hours of the arrest.

Taken together, these reforms can help reduce the time arrested people spend languishing in jails, waiting to appear in court.

“The Constitution guarantees that no one will be jailed without access to the courts or an attorney,” the authors write.

“At the state and local level, lawyers, lawmakers, judges, and jailers must honor the Constitution’s promises and end the initial appearance crisis.

To read the full report, click here.

This report was first published by The Crime Report.


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