Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Absence of Justice, Part One

Jerome Murdough was not a criminal. At least not in the way you think of criminals.

In his 56 years, he never robbed, mugged, beat, raped, or killed anyone. His life was not oriented toward plunder and criminality.

After graduating from high school he joined the U.S. Marine Corps, which suggests that he had physical courage.

After completing his service, which included a tour in Okinawa, he earned an honorable discharge. This suggests that he had good character.

But Murdough was also afflicted by mental illnesses that became manifest in his late twenties and on into his thirties. Chief among them was schizophrenia, but he also suffered from bipolar disorder -- a cruel double whammy of diseases that makes me think of that haunting lyric by Pink Floyd: "The wolves ate into his brain."

Illnesses like Murdough's are tough to treat in the first place, but they are triply tough to treat when the sufferer lacks health insurance and a steady job...And of course, the presence of such illness often leads directly to the lack of a steady job, which in turn leads to lack of insurance...And people who are in the throes of such illness are unlikely to be aware of, much less take advantage of, whatever public assistance might be available to them...And on top of that, people with mental disease are more prone to problems with drugs and alcohol, and less likely to get addiction care for the same reasons they are less likely to get treatment for their underlying psychiatric illnesses...This is, in many ways, the most vicious of vicious cycles.

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When the wolves ate into Murdough's brain, his life took a sadly predictable course and he was arrested roughly a dozen times over the course of 20 or so years. The arrests had nothing to do with "victimful crime," if you will, but with things like public intoxication and drug possession. The most serious blot on his record was for trespassing.

Once upon a time, if someone with Murdough's problems was found circling the drain like he was, that person would have been housed in a mental health facility and treated appropriately. Maybe he would have recovered and been returned free and functioning to society; or if not, maybe he would spend much of his life in one of those facilities. But either way he would be under appropriate care and receiving what was best for him.

Unfortunately, those days disappeared back when the arbiters of good taste started to believe that it was stigmatizing to take people who are mentally ill and place them in mental health facilities. That belief led to a wholesale change of public policy and closing of facilities starting in the 1960's, and as a result, human beings like Murdough now get cast back on the street with no money and no prospects. In this respect, his life represents a failure of policy.

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But in another respect, his life -- or more precisely, the end of his life -- represents a failure of that hydra known as the "American justice system." It is a failure so reprehensible that the word "failure" does not cut it.

On February 7th of this year, with New York experiencing one of the harshest winters on record, Murdough was homeless on the streets of Harlem. Desperate to keep from freezing to death, he entered a housing project and holed up in a stairwell, where he was arrested for trespassing.

From there he was hauled off to the infamous Rikers Island Jail, in the middle of the East River, and locked up alone in a cinderblock cell with bail set at an unattainable $2,500.00. Because jail authorities were aware of his mental condition, protocol dictated that he be checked on every 15 minutes.

But the checks did not happen, and a faulty climate control system (which was already known to be faulty) caused the temperature in Murdough's cell to skyrocket to the point that he was baked to death. By the time somebody finally bothered to look in on him, he had been dead for hours.

To make matters even worse, jail authorities waited days to notify Murdough's public defender.

And to make matters borderline (if not outright) evil, they never notified his family. Murdough's mother learned of her son's passing when a reporter called to ask her what she thought about it.

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It might seem easy to chalk this up as one tragic event that resulted from a bewildering, can't-happen-twice series of snafus, but I think it would be wrong to chalk it up as that. After all, Rikers Island was already known to have criminals on both sides of the bars, in the inimitable words of Kevin Williamson, which you can go here to read about.

It is not at all clear that the Gulag mentality of Rikers Island authorities is unusual in our nation's jails and prisons.

The number of trifling, nobody-would-ever-think-twice acts that have been redefined as "crimes," even "felonies," is shocking.

And the percentage of the "charged" population that gets convicted is so high we would view it as proof of corruption if it existed elsewhere.

In short, the hydra I mentioned earlier, the "American justice system," is often anything but. In many respects, it has become a moral rot that works against our founding ideals and is decaying the goodness that makes our nation great. And the most frightening thing is that most Americans are oblivious to this.

It is sad that Jerome Murdough's life ended as it did. It is sad that a man who had so much promise in his youth could end up being a poster child for wasted lives.

But perhaps the most decent way to honor him is to make sure that people know about his plight. Perhaps widespread knowledge of Murdough's fate can inspire people to raise their voices and spur America to live up to its ideals.

In other words, perhaps making Jerome Murdough a poster child is the right thing to do for his own memory and for the sake of posterity.

Over the coming months I will be writing a series of posts about the problems I perceive in the American justice system. The series will not be consecutive, by which I mean that I will write about other things in between many of the posts, but I believe this topic is crucial for the future and I hope you take the time to read it -- and to voice your disagreement if you think I am wrong.

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