The Justice League
I do not recall precisely how I landed on Scott Henson's dizzyingly thorough crime-and-punishment-in-Texas blog Grits for Breakfast yesterday; my days are full of random U-turns taken into the furthest corners of the blogdom. But I was happy to find it, not only for its cogent arguments regarding everything from ways to alleviate jail overcrowding to reasons why we should try to "understand prisoners," but because it also led me here: to Dallas public defender Mike Howard's dramatically named blog The Wretched of the Earth, which deals specifically with the Dallas criminal justice system's treatment of the indigent but also more generally with the politics of homelessness and poverty in our fair (or, rather, unfair) burg. Needless to say, he has plenty about which to write.
That is why, after shuttering the blog at the beginning of the year, Howard has hung out his virtual shingle once more: Last week, he relaunched the blog, after moving from civil work at Legal Aid of Northwest Texas to criminal work as a public defender. Howard, who graduated from SMU's law school two years ago and served as president of the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, says he began the blog last August for several reasons, among them the fact "this job is hard to take and live with every day." He needed a place to vent--"and my girlfriend could only take so much," he says. Howard also wanted to share with other attorneys dealing with the broke and the busted his experiences defending folks for whom the system has little time or interest.
"I did want to see what other public defenders out there had to say and share tactics and concerns," he says. "But my aim is public education. I don't think people have any concept how the criminal justice system works, especially for indigent people."
Which is why, last Wednesday, Howard posted a story about two Dallas County assistant district attorneys sharing a laugh at the expense of defendent sentenced to 50 years in prison--for pushing a woman, though without injury. In short, Howard says, about six months ago a man pled guilty to a misdemeanor family violence assault charge. He got out, and six months later, the same victim made the same allegations--only there was the allegation of a shove, which resulted in no injury whatsoever. Well, given his prior guilty plea and another stint behind bars, the guy could get some real time. So the DA's office offers him two years in prison, which Howard says would have amounted to time served. But the man insisted on a jury trial, which was an enormous mistake: He was not only found guilty but eventually sentenced to 50 years in prison. Howard is not, of course, defending the man's actions; no one could or would. His are more pragmatic concerns about overcrowding, about equal justice, about due process. And what he found particularly ghastly was the behavior of two ADA's in the elevator after the trial was over.
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"The case itself is unfortunate," he says. "It's strange that a case can go from a little push--we're not even talking pain, just I push you and you don't fall down, which is an unwanted touch, which is no more an $500 fine--to him going away for 50 years because he has a prior record. The system is so overcrowded I don't see how we can jail peple for such an offense, and even if we were on an eye-for-an-eye system, it wouldn't work out. But it wasn't how the case worked out, but the behavior of the DAs handling it. They just thought it was so funny this guy got 50 ears. That bothered me. And one guy says , 'He's 56, and he's probably going to die in prison,' and they laugh. I was nauseous at the callous disregard for life."
Howard is only 27, and his youth allows us to forgive his idealism--though, as he likes to point out, plenty of people younger than he turn bitter far more quickly when representing poor people whose rights often disappear along with their last dollar. He began the blog in August after a tenant was "unfairly evicted"; the case so galvanized him he wanted people to know what was going on. But he didn't want it to turn ugly--into a "bitchfest," he calls it. No point in that.
"Back then, I just thought, 'I have to get this out,'" he says. "But over the course of the year, I've blogged about specific cases and more general points I see in all my cases. There are a lot of public defender blogs out there—not in Dallas—but some of them serve as kind of a venting about their judges or DA, and that's risky business. I try to keep that out. I try to talk more generally and not break confidentiality and get in trouble, but there's so much going on that's messed up—either the law or how we look at people--and it's unfair." --Robert Wilonsky