This is basically a police state

The systemic forces that are driving over-prosecution and over-incarceration, general police overreach, are so vast

In today’s Hell World I interviewed a public defender in Ohio about the pressures and satisfactions of defending people who a lot of times no one else in the world gives a fuck about. We talked about the need for bail reform and the bittersweet pill of probation and the role local media who often consider themselves a branch of the cops play in ruining people’s lives. It’s a fun one.

If you missed this paid-only post from the other day it’s perhaps even more enraging. In it I spoke with a former nurse who worked for years in Texas and California because she genuinely wanted to help people. What she found instead was an insurance bureaucracy dedicated to extracting wealth from the bodies of the injured and the sick and even more exasperating for her doctors who were willing to manipulate that system to enrich themselves. A couple of years ago after working for a particularly malicious orthopedic surgeon she decided she could no longer in good conscience be a part of that system.

“Nurses are truly nurturers,” she told me. “I don't think we would be nurses if we weren't, but the healthcare industry does something to you. It's become a black void of greed and corporate shills who have no regards for the sanctity of life. I could no longer do a job I loved because I believe in compassion, selflessness, and solidarity with my fellow humans, you know?”

“I've told a patient who had just been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer that their insurance company would not pay for treatment because they themselves were not deemed viable,” she told me. “I've told women with breast cancer their insurance has denied a second mammogram for being medically unnecessary. I've told parents who were barely hanging on to hope that their insurance was not in network so we would be sending their child six hours away to another, less qualified facility. But I guess it was after I saw a little girl with the same name and age of my daughter that I'd finally had enough.” 

Subscribe and read it here if you like.

Real quick couple of other things!

In the very near future MSNBC and CNN are going to be running stories shaming patients for being rude to the computer explaining why they’re too poor to live. Those terminals are expensive they’ll say. haha they sure are the other ghoul will say.

After I shared that post above a reader sent me a message.

“My wife had a miscarriage a few weeks ago and we went to the emergency room,” he said. “After they checked us in and got us in a room, before we saw a nurse or doctor, some lady wheeled one of those in and asked how we would be paying. The priorities are so obvious. Bernie 2020.”

Something I often say in here is that I feel like the argument that we have to stop Bush or Trump or whoever no matter what first and then worry about real progress after that would be easier to swallow if the people making it ever seemed actually invested in the real progress when Democrats are in power. I saw a great thread on this topic here.

“I don't think it's possible but hypothetically let's say Joe Biden is the new president come next January,” Derek Davison wrote.

Let's even say he manages to carry the Senate, which is an outrageous long shot but let's roll with it. What will happen next is that all the people telling you we can't pursue a progressive agenda because We Must Unite To Defeat Trump will seamlessly pivot to telling you we can't pursue a progressive agenda because doing so would Risk Our Majorities. Then when the party gets blown out in 2022 because the Biden administration has done nothing to make anybody's lives better, those same people will pivot again to tell you that we can't pursue a progressive agenda because we have to Hold On To The White House.

This cycle will repeat until Republicans win the White House again, at which point we won't be able to pursue a progressive agenda because We Must Unite To Defeat Anthropomorphic Coronavirus or whatever nightmare emerges from the GOP next.

It's a scam. It's always been a scam.

“This is very similar to the way management presents issues to labor,” a reader named Cory replied to me. “When things are going well please don’t mess it up by making demands. When things are going poorly, that’s certainly not the time to threaten the stability of the company! Therefore, it’s NEVER time to make demands!”

In both cases the message is the same: Go fuck yourselves.

One more thing! Hey I finally crossed the 10,000 subscriber threshold that has been bedeviling me for a while now so thank you to all of you very much it means a lot. I never imagined so many people would read this newsletter and in fact I sort of deliberately made it hard for people to read in terms of subject matter and writing style and avoiding all the shit that working in the online content mines distilled in me as best practices to grow your audience so I think it’s pretty cool.

Also this happened around the same time last night so I’m gonna feel cool for a few minutes before my brain resets back to constantly agitated sicko mode.

I got a reply to this post below the other day from a new reader that I thought was pretty funny.

“Interesting post. But, were you a journalist or an English major?” the woman wrote. “I am. I know you didn't ask, but I feel the need to tell you, your sentence structure, punctuation, etc, is atrocious. To the point that I couldn't read more than the first paragraph or so. I'm certainly not going to pay for this. You can tell me to go to h if you want, but I think it's distracting and won't help you build readership. Do you use Grammarly? It's free and would help.”

Like I said I know Hell World is not for everyone and that’s fine that’s sort of the point but it honestly never occurred to me that someone would think I write this way…by accident lol. Anyway go to h lady.

Ok here’s the talk with the guy. Enjoy <3

How long have you been a public defender?

Almost three years now. I’ve been a lawyer for five. I did a year in the municipal division, which handles misdemeanors, mostly domestic violence and assault, driving under the influence, that sort of thing. After about a year of that, I moved to the appeals division where it’s everything. Now I’ve probably handled twenty murders on appeal. Before that I worked at a major global law firm where I did environmental law. In the circles that I travel in, I’d tell people I’m an environmental lawyer, and they’d be like man that’s awesome. I love GreenPeace or the Sierra Club or whatever, but I represented [a giant energy company]. It was pretty fucked up. I just couldn’t do that for very long. 

What is it that you want people to know about working as a public defender?

I would want people to know, maybe first and foremost, how hard most public defenders work, and how much they care in the face of relentless lack of care, or outright hostility from pretty much everybody on the other side. Sometimes even including our clients. Public defenders get a bad rap, and it’s often because people feel like my public defender is just trying to clear his caseload and get rid of me. I think to a certain extent that is what is happening a lot of the time, basically triage decision making. But part of the reason we do that is we care so much about the cases that get triaged as high importance, and also how painful it is to have to do that. We would love to not have such insane caseloads and so many incentives to sort of move things along and not rock the boat. 

Is it a matter of lack of funding?

Yes… in part. Although in my county we have a chief public defender who has done a good job of getting us more money, and that’s good, morale has increased, and caseloads have gone down significantly. So yes it’s a function of budget, but in a way that problem is kind of intractable. It kind of reminds me of how a lot of misguided urban planning boards think they can get rid of traffic by building more highways. No, you’re just going to end up with more people being incentivized to drive. The systemic forces that are driving over-prosecution and over-incarceration, general police overreach, are so vast, there isn’t really a practical level of funding that would be able to match that. We’re well-funded, but the forces aligned against us are so vast and powerful, we’re a long way from being where we need to be, and as a practical matter we’ll never get to. 

So there’s such an appetite for throwing people in jail in this country that it’s almost impossible to counteract is what you’re saying?

Yes, that is exactly what I’m saying. Sure, more funding would help, and more encouragement for good and passionate lawyers to get into indigent defense or other sort of public interest stuff would help, but ultimately the cause of so many difficulties facing public defenders are broader systemic things. This is basically a police state. 

Right. Where is bail reform at in Ohio? Anything moving there?

Not really. A lot of things are going on, but I don’t think they’ll end up coming to much. Part of the reason is, at least at the state legislative level, at this point Ohio is a supermajority red state. So from a moral question, is it right to determine whether or not someone can be detained pretrial based almost entirely on how much money they have is not really interesting or compelling to the relevant decision makers in the state house. There is some strange bedfellow thing happening between the moral people like ACLU and smaller local grassroots groups and the bigger conservative organizations, because the fact is, regardless of whether it’s right or wrong, it’s extremely expensive. That sadly seems to motivate some of the power brokers to have some interest.

Locally there have been some attempts to do this kind of like computer, AI-based algorithm risk assessment thing. It really hasn’t made any difference. It’s made everyone feel better, because they can say, look, I’m not making my bond decisions on just racial factors, or even the level of the crime. Often you’ll see a guy get charged with murder who gets a $3 million bond, as if that’s the right number. $2 million would be too low! $4 million would be too high! $3 million is just right. It’s hard for a judge to rationalize that type of thinking, but when a machine prints it out, it’s like, well, you know, the algorithm man, it works!

It’s some neoliberal fucking tech-solution shit. 

Exactly. A lot of people, especially the local media which was really going hard on bail reform, have kind of shut up about it now that they’re using this tool because, well, great, we solved the problem of racial bias! And racial bias wasn’t even the problem, although obviously that’s a major factor, it’s that if you murdered someone, if you’ve got $3 million bucks, I guess you’re free to go. If you’ve got $10, well, you’re fucked buddy. 

Have any of your clients been held in absurd circumstances awaiting trial?

I had a client who I represented in a subsequent case...but he had been charged before with aggravated murder. It was based on a jailhouse informant who said I realize you guys got me on what you’re charging me with, but I’ve got some very big information on who killed John Smith. And so he named my eventual client, and the police said ok great, sounds good. They picked him up, and indicted him on the murder, based on that single source of information, along with his friend. They were both held pretrial on $2 million bond for about two years, before ultimately both cases were just dismissed. The government realized they didn’t have anything besides this jailhouse informant, there was nothing connecting these guys to the murder. But it took two years to figure that out. The entire time they were just sitting there on these bonds that might as well just be no bond. But for a guy like my client who has maybe $10 in his bank account, or maybe doesn’t even have a bank account, $2 million is essentially a no bond. 

So these two dudes did two years jail time for nothing?

Right. Absolutely nothing. And there’s no recompense from the government, because technically speaking, they were being held lawfully. They were under indictment, they were under bonds that were technically correctly imposed. Then they were released. If anything the government sees that as justice being done. 

If we’re talking about the interest of keeping the peace or whatever stupid law-minded phrase, taking people and throwing them in jail for two years and disrupting their lives, making it almost impossible probably for them to come out and integrate back into society in the way we’re supposed to want people to… It seems absurd. I’m trying to put myself in the frame of mind of the law and order people. They probably think they’re doing the right thing here. But they’ve actually made the community where these two men live worse, because they’ve made these men’s lives impossible to pick back up in a productive way. 

I think that’s certainly correct, and certainly for my client. In addition to the incredible disruption of his participation in the economic system, also, he specifically is not only emotionally traumatized by the whole thing, the government just dismissed the case. They never bothered to say and we dismissed it because we don’t think these are the right guys. So now basically he can’t leave his house, because the friends of the murdered person, who was in fact murdered by someone, believe he did it, because the government said so. He basically told me, there are a lot of places in the city now where if I go I will be killed. 

The massive indifference to the wellbeing of this person’s life… there are so many layers to it. Well, we kept you for two years, fuck you, and then we didn’t even clear your name so we basically put a target on your back. 

Exactly. I had another client who was charged with rape, and this ties into the way media complicates things. They ran a story, and they gave his name. So and so raped a woman at a bus station, and then they ran a couple stories from bus riders like, gosh, I wish they had told us there was a rapist around. Turns out my guy had a reasonable bond, and he did manage to get out after six months pretrial, then the government dismissed the charges because once they actually got the security footage it turned out the rapist was this big huge guy, and my client was 5’3 skinny little kid. It was clearly the wrong guy. Of course the media never ran any stories about that, so now my client’s name, if you Google it, is still out there. According to court records he raped someone, and bus riders are terrified that this rapist is on the loose. No mention was made of, oh, well actually it wasn’t that guy it was a different guy. Don’t worry about that guy, he didn’t rape anyone. 

Local media are basically a deputized branch of law enforcement, or at least a lot of them think of themselves that way. 

I think that’s definitely true. The crime page of Cleveland.com, as far as I can tell they basically just trawl the daily docket, and of course get tips from the cops, and it’s just a list of “Man rapes women, according to court records,” or “Seven arrested on drug charges, according to court records.” And then you never see anything else about it. There’s a real lack of effort, and I know it’s not fully the media’s fault, to instill any baseline level of criminal procedure or constitutional law literacy in the readership. The mind automatically deletes “court records show” and you just see “John Smith raped his girlfriend” I’m going to fire him. And there’s no explanation of, like, these are merely allegations, and they must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, or that Mr. Smith’s lawyers said on his behalf that he looks forward to defending himself… It’s the sort of thing that Trump has done very well, for himself, saying these are mere allegations, and anyone can say anything, you have to prove it. The Washington Post will eat that up for major important people, Harvey Weinstein or whoever, but you get your indigent black teenagers, and nobody is going to do that. I think that’s a real disservice. If the media is going to take the cops’ line they should at least make an effort to take the constitutional line, if anything, in the service of the so-called neutrality that they love. 

They do love providing neutral coverage of powerful people! Does it make your job much harder if the guy is in the paper before trial?

Yeah it does. Some of it is a jury is going to be a little tainted, and that’s fine there are mechanisms to deal with that if you do a good job getting your jury ready and selecting them carefully you can mitigate a lot of that. I think the more troubling issue is the judges are affected by it, in part because they're going to be setting these bonds, and in part because in really big cases the media are getting interested in, the judge is going to have cameras in the courtroom. The judges here are all elected, so they don’t want to be seen on camera saying, hey, officer, you can’t testify to that, or I’m going to give a relatively light sentence despite what looks like a gruesome crime, because I thought about all the things involved. They’re going to be encouraged to say I’m tough on crime! Life sentence without parole! Then let the cameras zoom in on their authoritative face. They know if they let the guy off on a light sentence or let him out on bond, and he does go and rape someone else or whatever, people are going to unfairly, say Judge Jones let someone out on a light bond and now they’re a murderer. Cleveland.com doesn’t matter and nobody reads it, so it’s less the juries than the judges being terrified of seeming soft on crime. 

This probably happens more so in states where they can have appointed judges with zero legal background, but are the judges you face in general fucking morons, or are they just bad people, or are they decent people who think they’re trying to help?

There’s a judge that fits in every category you just named. There are definitely some malicious, awful people, and maybe they cloak it in an interest in... Some are psychotically opposed to the idea of someone [getting away] with domestic violence. That automatically think the person surely is guilty and needs to be put away for as long as possible. Then they cloak that in, well, it’s because I care about women. But really what I think they’re interested in is power and punishment and exercising control.

There are some judges who want to help people, including the defendant, but in their view putting someone on probation for five years is helping them. But if they fuck up at all because they’re poor, or have mental health or addiction issues, the system of probation is too invasive and compulsory that, well, we’ll send them to prison. There are some that are legitimate defenders of people’s rights, who are still constrained by institutional biases and pressures, but there are a handful of judges who are good. I would say the majority of them are not stupid. Some are really smart and diligent. Some of the smart ones are also evil. There are some who are truly moronic and one wonders if they can read. The majority are mediocre, average lawyers who have the right last name or connections or whatever. 

You said something interesting about probation. I think a lot of times people hear, oh, five years probation, that’s great! Celebration! But it really does fuck with people’s lives, especially for lower economic status people, right?

It really does. For the vast majority of people of course it’s better than five years in prison, or even one year in prison. But you are being subjected to this panopticon. Many people can’t even consume alcohol. I guess I can see, ok, don’t do drugs, even marijuana, fair enough, it is federally illegal… But you have to have meetings with your probation officer, and if you miss them, god help you. At that point you really are subject to the whims of the administrative daddy state in a way you might not be even if you were in prison. At least there, to a certain extent, you’re kind of just left alone. Obviously I have advocated for many clients to be given probation instead of prison, but it’s with a heavy heart even then. 

Here’s a thing I struggle with. Obviously we have way too many people in prison, and the way we treat them in there, and once they’re out, it’s torture. But there’s still a vestige of something that’s been ingrained in me where, say, if someone beats up a woman, or hurts someone with a weapon, whatever, there should be some consequences… But is there a space between abolishing prison, which is something to work toward but seems unlikely any time soon, and doing better than we’re doing now?

I agree. I’ve represented people, and I did my job, I did what I could to get them the most lenient sentence possible, but some clients it’s like, well, you’ve done something extremely bad and dangerous that has wrecked people’s lives, and you need to be punished. I think we could increase the rehabilitative function that prison supposedly has — of course it doesn’t have that effect at all — by doing a better job of not putting people into prison that haven’t for example murdered someone. Making a better distinction between, ok, you sold fentanyl, that’s bad. You shouldn’t do that. But maybe we don’t need to have you and thousands of other people like you in prison for twenty years, because then we can have more resources devoted to the person who did do something violent. 

The other side is so much of this is caused by systemic problems that are the root of all this. I have clients who are bad people. I think the cause of that is still in their childhood, systemic things. But I’ve had clients who are bad people, at this point. I don’t think they were born that way, but that’s who they are. Then I’ve had a lot, maybe they beat someone up, but when I interact with them I can see the rage and lack of self control is really a function of the powerlessness they feel in every single other aspect of their lives. So now they have this one thing they can have control over in the form of physical violence, and because of the dehumanizing system they live under, and the hate they feel toward the world, they unleash it…

Maybe I’m naive. I don’t think people want to commit crimes. I don’t think people want to break into a home or whatever. Maybe some people do. But there certainly would be a lot fewer of them if we didn’t crush people in so many other different ways before they commit the crime. 

I agree. 

And it’s so frustrating that we have to fight tooth and nail to even get some modest shit, like what we’re going through right now in the election. What if people didn't have to go poor because they got sick? There were a couple stories I wrote about here in Hell World a while ago where guys would rob like a pharmacy and say I’m sorry, my child is sick, I need the money. Shit like that. The thing is, we have to drag people to even see the benefit of the sort of shit someone like Bernie is proposing. We have to fucking convince people that we don’t all have to suffer like this! And then they say hm no I think we do. We’re just such a cruel and punitive culture, it’s really frustrating. 

It really is. I feel the impulse to feel just completely defeated by the magnitude of the task at hand, because the goals...I would consider Bernie Sanders to the right of me, but I would be elated if half of his proposals were to become law and accepted into society. It seems like so little to ask, but to then hope for the things that I hope for, that go so far beyond, it seems like what’s the point. It’s a dream. And that sucks. It’s a shitty feeling. 

Well we have to try anyway. Is there something else you want people to know about the job?

One, there’s not enough attention paid to the effects of minor misdemeanor convictions on establishing this pathway into greater criminal activity. Particularly with traffic stops. You drive once without a license, now your license is suspended, you have to come up with $1,000 to get it back, but you don’t have it, so you keep driving with your license suspended. Then you get put in jail for thirty days, so you lose your job, which means now maybe you’re gonna sell a little bit of dope, so you get picked up for that. All of a sudden you’re murdering someone over a drug deal because, in fact, you drove once without a license. I think there’s not enough attention paid to the mild initial baseline effects of a conviction like that, but also the collateral effects that just ripple outwards, and truly ruin people’s lives, especially when they’re poor.

The other thing is, I feel like a lot of our conversation has been negative, and it should be, but I want it to be known by you and your readers that this is the best job I’ve ever done. I think it’s an extremely necessary job. It’s one that very few people want to do, are encouraged to do, or I think have the personality or moral constitution to do. I love it. I love the battle and the opportunity to defend people. Often I am the only person on the planet who gives a fuck what happens to my client. The rest of the world either doesn’t give a shit, or hates them and wants to hurt them. Almost in a selfish way, that’s a really good way to spend your time. Fighting for people like that. I left a job where I was making $160,000 a year to make a fifth of that doing what I’m doing now. I wouldn’t change that for anything. I think a lot of public defenders feel the same way. I’m not religious, but it’s the closest thing to a religious calling to me and I think a lot of my colleagues.