Thursday, September 20, 2018
Today, Serial premieres Episodes 1 and 2 of their 3rd season. This season differs from season 1 in that it's not a single story told week to week. Instead, it's a year in the life of the criminal courts in Cleveland, with the promise of exploring endemic issues in the criminal justice system. In Episode 1, Serial fulfills its promise by shining a light on a different type of wrongful conviction.
It tells the story of Anna, a 21 year-old woman in a bar who has her ass slapped repeatedly, is attacked by another woman, and ends up accidentally striking a police officer who tries to break up a bar fight. Pretty much everyone who watches the video of the incident (including the officer himself) thinks that Anna is innocent, and yet she charged with felony assault on an officer:
By the end of the episode, Anna, who spent four days in pretrial detention due to inability to make bail, ends up pleading guilty to misdemeanor disorderly conduct and having to pay a bevy of fines and court fees, a result which everyone in the system* seems to regard as a "win." Here's the money quote from Anna's appointed attorney:
Wrongful convictions for serious felonies like rapes and murders get most of the headlines, but a huge percentage of wrongful convictions are in these misdemeanor cases. Sasha Natapoff, a law professor at the UC Irvine School of Law has written extensively about this issue, including an article for Slate. She observes that
The misdemeanor machine has inspired a slew of epithets: “meet ‘em and plead ‘em lawyering,” “assembly line justice,” “cattle herding,” and “McJustice.” They reflect the reality that once people charged with misdemeanors get to court, they are pressured by judges, prosecutors, and their own lawyers into pleading guilty, often without knowledge of their rights or the nature of the charges against them. Bail makes it worse. Around 80 percent of defendants who have bail set cannot afford to pay it. Innocent defendants commonly plead guilty just to get out of jail. In this way, millions of Americans are punished without due process and learn the cynical lesson that, at least when it comes to minor offenses, law and evidence aren’t all that important.
And, in a quote that has direct bearing on what happened to Anna in the episode, Natapoff notes that
we shouldn’t write off misdemeanors. The repercussions of a petty conviction can be anything but minor. These offenses are increasingly punished with hefty fines that low-income defendants cannot pay. A conviction of any kind can ruin a person’s job prospects. A petty conviction can affect eligibility for professional licenses, child custody, food stamps, student loans, and health care or lead to deportation. In many cities, a misdemeanor makes you ineligible for public housing.
It will be interesting to see how the rest of season 3 unfolds, but this is certainly a promising start.
*Sarah Koenig, as the outside, sees the absurdity in the result.