The Pulitzer Center's Talks @ Pulitzer Focus on Justice Series continued on Thursday, July 16, 2020, with a discussion focused on the criminalization of poverty in part through the bail system and overwhelmed public defenders. Ann Peters of the Pulitzer Center moderated the conversation with Pulitzer Center journalist grantee Frank Carlson, attorney Alec Karakatsanis, and Ricky Kidd, a criminal justice activist who spent 23 years in a Missouri maximum security prison for a crime he did not commit.
Carlson began by describing "Broken Justice," a Pulitzer Center-supported PBS NewsHour podcast series that showcases the experiences of some of the 450,000 people awaiting trial in U.S. jails solely because they cannot pay their bail and zeroes in on the overwhelmed public defender system in Missouri. He described his observations during the project saying, "... in so many parts of America, for so many poor people, we do not have a fair system. We do not have a criminal justice system."
"You always think that you can win because you can't afford to think that you can lose," Kidd commented, reflecting on the moments before he was finally deemed innocent by a judge after 12 different hearings.
The following is an edited transcript of the conversation and Question & Answer segment of the webinar, moderated by Peters. Portions of this text have been revised for clarity and/or length.
Ann Peters: I know it's not been even a full year since your release after 23 years in prison, and last year the Missouri state judge agreed to hear your new appeal, 10 years after you lost an earlier one. You have said you blame the public defender system 100 percent. From listening to the Broken Justice series, it did not seem that you backed down from moving forward and getting people to work with you. You also started teaching in prison. Tell us about the period of time when you were waiting to hear the final decision on appeal last year along with your release, and what your hope and focus is today.
Ricky Kidd: We call it broken justice but many people say: "Ricky, the system isn't broken. It's actually working the way it was intended and designed and so I experienced that, whether you believe one side or the other. Twenty-three years ago, [the] nightmare began for me. I could not believe that–I did not believe–innocent people go to prison. That's how uneducated I was, Ann. I did not believe such was the case. I believe that many people in today's society believe that innocent people don't typically go to jail. Even though we hear some of the numbers, I think we think that it is still rare. It is not as rare as we believe.
So I'm glad and grateful to be here today, but to your question, that last year–it was 2019–I sat after losing 11 times. I lost 11 times prior to this last time, and when I say the last time, it was the absolute last time. This was it. Had I lost this appeal, I would be spending the rest of my natural life in prison for a crime that I absolutely did not commit.
The ending was not written (when PBS NewsHour started covering the case). The ending would come from a judge out of Gallatin, Missouri, by the name of the Honorable Judge Daren Adkins, who sat through four days worth of hearing and decided through clear and convincing evidence that I was innocent, that other individuals appear to be guilty, and that the hands of the detectives and the prosecution were not clean as it relates to contributing to that. But as Frank was covering along with the PBS team, underneath my story was a failed public defender system. And so I sat last year waiting for this ruling to come down.
At that moment, you always think that you can win because you can't afford to think that you can lose. I was sure and unsure, and finally, that call came from my legal team that I was finally going to be released. After a 23-year nightmare, I felt like I had walked into a dream. I felt I had a commitment and a responsibility to use my new freedom to help others find their freedom.
AP: Alec, you've trained public defenders and been a public defender. Now you lead the Civil Rights Corps, advocating for policy change through an abolitionist lens. Picking up on Ricky's comments, can you conceptualize this broader moment we're in and some of the key priorities you have as they relate to criminal justice?
Alec Karakatsanis: So much of our work is exposing the true functions of the criminal justice bureaucracy. It's important to understand that no society in the recorded history of the modern world has ever attempted to take so many human beings and put them into cages. We arrest 11 million human beings every single year in this country which means that there are 11 million times where we put metal chains on someone and take them away from their children, their house, job, family, and community. We put them into a cage of concrete and metal and then allow their cages to become grotesque torture chambers. I go to jails and prisons all over the country and the things I see there are absolutely horrific. They are places of incredible abuse, sexual violence, and infectious disease. When I got to the city of Ferguson shortly after the murder of Michael Brown a few years ago, I learned that the city averaged 3.6 arrests per household and almost all of which were for unpaid debt. In six years, I never found a white family impacted by those arrests warrants in Ferguson. This is the reality of what is being done in all of our names and it's within that context that we have to understand any conversation about the public defender system, plea bargaining, and cash bail. We've received a lot of attention around our work for dismantling and challenging the cash bail system around the country and when I first took told people we're going to start suing judges, sheriffs, police, and prosecutors over cash bail we were laughed at. They said: "We use cash bail in 3,000 jurisdictions all over the country. It can't be unconstitutional."
Yet in January of 2015, I went to a local police station in Alabama and I asked for a list of people who have been arrested. I went over to the jail and started calling people's names out. Then I met a young woman named Christy and she agreed to become the first person to challenge the American money bail system on equal protection and due process grounds since the rise of mass incarceration. It was an act of extraordinary bravery on her part. She had been arrested from shoplifting from Walmart and she was separated from her children just like so many others are separated from their families when they're arrested. If she had a couple of hundred dollars, she could have gone home to her family. She was so distraught not knowing where her kids were that she was admittedly acting out and screaming and crying. She told me that the night before I saw her, the jail guards took her to a little nook in the hallway where they keep a chair outside of the view of any of the security cameras and they strapped her to the chair and tasered her body over and over and over again until she could no longer scream again. She showed me all of the wounds and I took a photograph. She said to me: "I don't want this to ever happen to another mother or human being again."
Within the first 10 months of 2015, we filed twelve similar lawsuits in twelve different cities all over the country with four of them in Missouri, challenging and striking down this money bail system. The next year we filed a lawsuit in Harris County, Texas, which is sort of a landmark lawsuit challenging the cash bail system in Houston and—as a result of that lawsuit which we just finally settled last year—about 19,000 people every single year are going to get out of the local jail because they're not gonna use cash bail anymore. That's just one city though, and I think we all have to understand the role at the cash bail system is playing in conjunction with the public defender system. We have two tiers of "justice" in this country. There's one tier for people who don't have any money, of which many people end up pleading guilty because they don't have cash for bail and can't get their cases heard because of how long it takes to get a public defender to represent them. There's another tier for people that do have money who are never convicted of anything 51 percent of the time because they can afford to bail themselves out and eventually have their case heard. One of the critical points to make is that the people that do have money are almost never even brought into the criminal legal system in the first place. In that context, public defenders are asked to do an impossible task.
Frank Carlson: So much of what Alec said hit home to my reporting. For so many people, the jail is the entry point to the system where you're going to jail for some kind of minor crime or a crime of mental illness, drug addiction, or homelessness. And you get released on a plea deal and the conditions of your plea deal are that you will do the x number of things and you will be under supervision through probation, and then you may violate probation. The local jails are where so many people end up becoming lifelong criminals because once they get in the system they cannot get out of it. People often wonder how to free up bandwidth for public defenders to help people stuck in this system, usually suggesting that we have more lawyers. But it's not that we need more lawyers, we need less prosecution. We need to stop criminalizing things like drug addiction, mental illness, and poverty. That would go such a long way in dealing with this crisis in a more humane way.
AP: If there is one specific message that everyone can take from learning about criminal justice in the United States, what would you like it to be?
RK: I would like for people to educate themselves on the system. To make sure that they're following people like Alec [Karakatsanis], Frank's coverage with PBS NewsHour, and continue to participate in events like this one. We need to try and recognize that we have to be educated first and then inspired into action. I'm afraid that we're not being educated as it results to our injustice system and we're not being inspired to do anything about it, and we don't realize how it connects back to ourselves.
For example, when the wrong person is in prison, like me, that means the right person is out there committing a crime. People say they don't have a dog in this fight when, actually, [they] do. That means somebody else is out there committing a crime. That's leaving the community at risk. Usually, the people who get away, particularly when they see somebody else paid the price, they're not going to say: "Uh oh, I'm not going to do that again." They're going to be emboldened to do it again.
Then there's the fee that the taxpayers pay when the wrong person is in prison. The average person spends about twenty years before they're exonerated which costs about twenty thousand [dollars per year] here in this region per year. So for me, that was about four-hundred and sixty thousand dollars. When we're looking at the numbers, Ann, we're talking about [how the] five percent of the U. S. prison population is believed to be wrongfully convicted. You're talking about a hundred and twenty thousand individuals wrongfully convicted, you're talking about [millions] of dollars. Who pays that bill? We pay those taxes that [pay for] keeping the wrong people in prison when it can go towards bridges, roads, education, mental health, and a properly-funded public defender system, but we fail to do these things.
AK: I think that the thing that you have to understand is that the system is operating in a way that serves very important interests for some people in our society, and it's not an accident that the United States cages black people at a rate 6 times that of South Africa at the height of apartheid. It's not an accident that you and I, along with all of our high school students, are being told that this propaganda saying that this system exists to keep us safe. You have to understand [that] only five percent of all arrests in this country are for things that the FBI calls "serious violent crimes." Ninety-five percent of what this bureaucracy does is not [keeping us safe from violent crime.] One of the main functions of the system is to trick you into thinking that we need all of these very expensive, brutal, and racist aspects of the system. The most important thing is to educate yourself and others and this is why I wrote the book Usual Cruelty to try to help explain what the system is really doing.
AP: What efforts can/should local journalists take to contribute to reporting on this issue? What focuses and avenues would you recommend?
FC: Depending on where you live, your local public defender's office is a great place to start. Court-appointed lawyers and public defenders deal with these systems day in and day out and can explain what's happening at the local level, and they can often connect you with clients who are experiencing these issues first-hand. You should also reach out to the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, and look for any local or state non-profits that advocate for currently and formerly incarcerated people. There's a lot going on right now, especially during COVID-19, and once you're on their radar, you'll find plenty of stories to tell.
To learn more about the ongoing fight toward system reform and how you can support the initiatives behind them, see the below resources, recommended by our panelists:
- For teachers and professors: The New Press has set up a fund to give free copies of Karakatsanis' Usual Cruelty: The Complicity of Lawyers in the Criminal Injustice System for students. A free copy will be sent to a person in prison for every student given the book in a class. Please contact Alec Karakatsanis via Civil Rights Corps if interested.
- Kidd's book is Vivid Expressions: A Journey Inside The Mind of The Innocent.