If you live on Tallman Street in the North End of New Bedford or South Second in the South End, the story about bail in today’s paper will drive you nuts.
On the one hand, you have Mayor Jon Mitchell and Police Chief Joe Cordeiro earnestly crying out about career criminals violating low bails, sometimes going back on the street to do the same crimes the next day. And even then not being held accountable by the courts.
On the other hand, you have district court judges and defense attorneys earnestly concerned that the mayor and chief are coming close to arguing that regular offenders don’t get the same presumption of innocence for each crime that law-abiding citizens do.
It’s always been the central conflict in the American judicial system and there are good arguments on both sides.
But it’s all little consolation to you if you live in a neighborhood where the bad guys rule.
When you live in the poorest, most dangerous, mostly minority neighborhoods of New Bedford, or any other American city for that matter, you don’t have time or safety for the niceties of fair play and equitable jurisprudence. You’re just trying to stay safe, you’re just trying to stay alive.
From my own perspective, the tension between controlling bad guys and protecting good guys in American neighborhoods is inextricably tied to our 50-year unsuccessful war on drugs. We’re always thinking if we can just throw a few more of the worst of those villains in the can, we’ll be alright.
Maybe. Or maybe you’ll just be moving the delinquents down the road to the next neighborhood, maybe we’ll just be giving the opportunity to the next tough guy whose cousin is already in Cedar Junction but who’s happy to follow him and take up the mantle of drug kingpin of Ruth Street.
The one thing that was abundantly clear after reading reporter Curt Brown’s portrait in today’s paper of the complaints about the bail system is that the district court system in Massachusetts is broken.
Mayor Mitchell and Chief Cordeiro complain about the judges but it’s as much a legislative problem as it is a judicial one. And somehow it seems almost too neat by half for the mayor and chief to say the reason some New Bedford streets are terrorized by violent criminals is because of the courts or Legislature, when part of their job is to work with both.
Mitchell thinks there’s a small number of people terrorizing a few neighborhoods that we need to do a better job of putting behind bars. He points out that Massachusetts has one of the lowest incarceration rates in the nation, but even he acknowledges that district courts have “a relatively high volume of cases” and that sometimes the courts are just “try to move cases along.”
The mayor says the biggest problem is that there are so infrequently serious consequences for violating the conditions of bail. And if that’s a problem of too much paperwork, or too little follow-through, or too overburdened courts, it needs to be addressed, probably at the legislative and gubernatorial level.
Again, the system is gummed up because we’re trying futilely to police a rabidly violent economy of the buying and selling of mood-altering substances. Illegal drugs. It doesn’t work. It didn’t work in the 1920s when as a nation we tried to ban the production, importation and transportation of alcoholic beverages. And it hasn’t worked since the 1960s when substances like heroin, cocaine and marijuana became massively popular and a huge international drug economy grew up around them.
Think my ideas are outlandish? Look at how Portugal now handles the problem of opioid addiction. No, look at how Canada has begun to handle it. Legal clinics where intravenous drug addicts go to safely make themselves high. If we’re doing that, why not just supply the drugs and the medical and educational information to help the addicts get straight?
That, unfortunately, isn’t going to happen here in New Bedford anytime soon.
So what are we left with?
A court system that can’t keep up. A criminal class that works the system and frequently beats it. And neighborhoods that are so dangerous that no one wants to live in them, poor or otherwise.
Massachusetts just finished enacting a big criminal reform bill. It comes in the wake of the Supreme Judicial Court’s decision last August reaffirming that bail is only meant to ensure the appearance of defendants in court. And the court also insisted that judges must consider the ability of a defendant to pay when setting bail.
That’s all well and good but it doesn’t address the problem of repeat offenders who regularly violate the conditions of their bail. Mitchell, a former federal prosecutor, argues that the reform didn’t go far enough and that the state’s district court system would be better off if it were more like the federal court system. There, they‘ve done away with bail and the only decision is whether to hold the defendant because they are a flight risk or a danger to the community.
He has a point but the bigger problem, it seems to me, is that our district courts are just drowning in too many drug cases. They can’t keep up. Not the judges, not the prosecutors, not the defense attorneys.
We can’t incarcerate ourselves out of policing the drug economy. We haven’t been able to do it for 50 years. Not in New Bedford. Not anywhere else.
And in that kind of scenario, the bad guys will always be terrorizing the city’s poorest neighborhoods. One has to wonder when we will finally get tired of it.