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Met an older man 2+ years ago. Recently diagnosed w/ cancer. Brought from hospital to court. Charged w/ armed robbery. Faced life in prison. Judge did the rare thing. Set bail in an amount he could afford. His wife bought his freedom. Released. What happened may surprise you.
This man was immediately connected w/ a social worker in my office. @BklynDefender is blessed w/ an army of committed social workers. Most defender offices have few or none. He was also connected w/ our reentry team lead by formerly incarcerated leaders. We started to learn more.
This man spent the last 25 out of 35 years or so in prison. In his last 12 year stint though he became a transformational leader. He started a youth mentorship & fatherhood program. Men in & out of prison credited him w/ saving them. The warden advocated his release on parole.
He was released. This time would be different. Reunited w/ his family. His loving wife. His 4 children. A celebration. Then reality sunk in. He was a “convict.” Despite his leadership, his potential, job after job turned him away. He couldn’t be trusted. So he couldn’t provide.
Tensions rose at home. His mood sunk. Getting turned away time and again. And then the cancer diagnosis. The life he imagined on the outside was so far different than what he thought he could achieve (& did achieve on the inside). He started drinking again. Tensions rose more.
One random morning, he allegedly held up a manager of a fast food restaurant w/ a knife. Asked for the safe. A totally botched, pathetic effort if true. No one injured except for him. Slammed over the head w/ a metal contraption. Hospitalized. Stitches. Found on ground outside.
When I met him, he had a bandage over his entire head. Crying. Terrified. And shaking. Please let me go home. The judge was sympathetic. And set bail in a relatively low amount. And he was released before stepping foot on Rikers. We got to work. Trial was risky. Negotiation time.
His social worker delved into his past & present. He opened up wholeheartedly & trusted us. We met his family. He engaged voluntarily in a treatment program. Received letters of support. Also helped me investigate. He was able to do all of this because he wasn’t jailed pretrial.
Meanwhile, he returned to court. Dozens of times. Always first there. Dressed in a suit. Black w/ a white shirt & big old-fashioned ties. Strong handshake. Broad smile. His wife by his side. Always. But as time wore on & life in prison remained prospect, his health deteriorated.
His determined walk, became slow & weak. His nervous system rebelled. Uncontrollable shaking. A bad fall. Then a cane. Then came hospitalizations & surgeries. Then another fall, breaking his back. Neck brace. Falling apart. Prison would kill him. The prospect of it already was.
We decided to write a motion to dismiss in interests of justice. Argued that given his history, health, relatively benign nature of the allegation, support system, & proven determination to get better through treatment, that upon successful completion, the Court should dismiss.
We attached letters from his family. The affirmations from all those he mentored. The warden of his prison. The positive evaluations from his program. His medical records. Again, we were able to present this compelling argument in large part bc of his release. We collaborated.
For all those following along, you’re going to kill me, but got a work call I have to take. Going to be back as soon as possible for the end.
Continued break. Sorry. Back to back calls. And now child care. I will continue writing between 830-9pmEST. Life + work interrupted thread.
After submitting the motion to dismiss, we waited. & waited. The court was reviewing. The prosecution was reviewing. The court wanted to see if the prosecution would be willing to consent. The court was uncomfortable holding the motion open while he did treatment. Months passed.
And as each month passed, and as each court date came & went his health got worse. Then finally an answer. The prosecution said they had reviewed the case at the highest levels. And critically, they said, they saw his condition. They didn’t want him to die. They made an offer.
Offer: Plead guilty to robbery. The charge that carried the mandatory life sentence given his record. But sentence withheld. If he successfully completed 12-18 months of substance treatment: dismissal. If he failed or new arrests: 16 years to life in prison. Stakes. Were. High.
Decision time. He had a triable case. A plausible innocent explanation. But if he was found guilty, thered be no option but to sentence him to life. Or he could take the prosecution’s out: But that out conditioned freedom on sobriety. An elusive goal matched against alcoholism.
12-18 months sober for anyone suffering from alcoholism is difficult. But facing threat of life in prison? Some might say that’s actually a good deterrent. My experience: The increased anxiety often has the opposite of the intended effect. Also: was he even ready for sobriety?
He chose the program. 6-12 months inpatient. Followed by outpatient. He was ready. He was relieved. He felt like he had control back over his life. He was elated. He thought he could do this. He was grateful. He powered through the plea. Crisp “yesses” & “nos.” Judge had doubts.
She pressed him on his understanding of the consequences of failure. He said he understood. She told him everyone in that room-herself, the prosecution, & our team were rooting for him. And wanted him to succeed. But that life hung over him. He understood. This was 1.5 years ago.
He did incredibly well in inpatient. I remember as each month long adjournment passed & I’d see him in court in his suit, he grew stronger. More resilient. The smile came back. The shaking lessened. Was on his way. I thought he could this. Then he transitioned to outpatient.
It started off okay. Then things got tense in his household. Then he started missing sessions. Then he tested positive for alcohol. And them the program reported to the judge. Court called an emergency hearing. Worst nightmare. I thought this was it. He was terrified. I was too.
That morning he was shaking again. Walking slower. His eyes were tear filled. I smelled alcohol on his breath. And told him so. He was so embarrassed & ashamed. I told him not to be. That I still believed in him. His social worker as always was right by his side. She did too.
He was overconfident. Like when he first got out of prison. Thought he had a handle on his problem. But home life, regular life, unlike inpatient treatment for an alcoholic, unlike prison for someone with a violent criminal record, was harder in many ways in than the alternative.
The judge calls cases promptly at 9:30am. She is one of the most serious judges in Brooklyn Supreme Court. Tough. Demands promptness. I’ve seen her remand people for being late. Many other times I’ve seen her be one of the fairest judges. She asked us to step into the back.
The man was asked to stay in the courtroom where court officers with cuffs watched him. There is a door to every courtroom that leads to the hallway. And another door that leads to holding cells, in front of elevators, that take you down to other cells, & then to jail. He sat.
His social worker, the prosecutor, the judge, her clerk, and the court reporter all went into the hallway behind the courtroom. Beautiful view of the Brooklyn & Manhattan. The court reporter signaled she was ready. “What are we going to do?” the judge asked. She looked at me.
I told her about what he told me. His acknowledgment that he was overconfident. But committed. Pointed out the struggle of going from in to out. Compared it to his struggle when he got out of prison. She shook her head in acknowledgement. “I know well the scourge of alcoholism.”
She like many (most?) of us know someone well who suffers from substance abuse. The struggle he was facing was not lost on her. “I feel for him. But something needs to change.” She said detox & again inpatient. I started suggesting something else. She clarified: Not a suggestion.
He wasn’t getting sentenced that day. He wasn’t going in. He was given another chance! We had to work out other details before going back out to the court, but all I could think about was him sitting there. Wondering whether it was all over. Dying to just open the door & tell him
Finally we handled business. Rushed to door—pretending to be courteous, but really just wanting to get my eyes on him. He was staring right at the door. Waiting for a sign. Expecting bad. I gave him a a positive nod. Mouthed: “You’re good.” I felt his exhale from 20 feet away.
He was sobbing. I asked the judge if we could take a moment w/ him outside. The reentry team from my office—2 extraordinary colleagues who also served long prison terms for serious crimes—was there. We went to a conference room. Bear hug. “Thank you!” “Wasn’t me. Was the judge.”
“She believes in you and also understands the struggle. We do too. We believe in you.” I told him about detox & inpatient. Expected everything was cool. And suddenly the disease took over. “I’m not going back to inpatient. I got this.” It wasn’t him talking.
I was stunned. And not stunned. I looked at him & firmly said: “This is not you talking. This is the disease. And maybe you do “got this,” but you also have a f*cking life sentence hanging over your head.” He was upset. I was upset. And I was also aware judge was waiting for us.
“The situation sucks. I wish you were never arrested. I wish we never met. I wish you didn’t have your criminal record. Weren’t facing life. Didn’t ever pick up drugs or alcohol. Didn’t pick it up again. But here we are. And that judge is waiting right now. For you to accept.”
His shoulders relaxed back. His face loosened. He sat down. “I believe in you. I truly do. And I’m sorry to get heated. I’m not your dad. I’m young enough to be your son. I’m just trying to help. I just want you out of this damn mess. On w/ your life. You’ve got to do this.”
Deep breath. “You’re right,” he said. “I can do this. Let’s go.” Before he had a chance to say anything further I stood up, opened the conference room door, walked to the courtroom door, & walked in. The judge looked up. I prayed I heard the door behind me open again. It opened.
The judge spoke to him. Told him how much she wanted him to succeed. And how she understood his struggle.
But that this was his last chance. Ordered him in to detox and then inpatient. He said he understood. His social worker had already arranged a detox. Traveled w/ him there.
He completed 28 days of detox.
He completed 4 additional months of inpatient.
Then transition time to outpatient, I remember expecting/not-expecting a call from his social worker (who I have on speed dial bc we work together on a number of cases). Every time my phone would buzz I’d pray it wasn’t her. And when it was, pray it wouldn’t be about him.
Month after month, no news. Each update in court: positive. He was getting stronger. More confident—and rightfully so—in his recovery. And then in January 2020, after 15 months in program total, judge decided it was time. To adjourn the case one more time. To March 3. For final.
I shook his hand. “You got this.” “I know I do.” Huge smile. “I got this. See you in two months.” He walked off. There was something about that interaction that set me at ease truly for the first time since meeting him. I really knew he had this.
I didn’t think about him much over the last two months. No news was good news. And then a few days ago the final report was sent in by the program to the court. The clerk acknowledged receipt. And I double clicked on the PDF.
He did it. Not a single positive toxicology. Glowing report from the program. And get this: A job offer at the inpatient program he attended to be a recovery coach and mentor!
The case was called at 930 sharp. He was wearing his suit as usual. Earliest one there as always. Glowing. The judge was serious as always. “The plea is vacated, dismissed, & sealed.” He thanked everyone: judge, prosecutors, clerks, & his team all for helping him. Judge smiled.
Talked to him today by phone. He’s doing great. Starts work next week. Wants to tell his story. Wanted me to share with you all . He laughed when I asked him if knew what Twitter was. “Im not a total dinosaur!” We we’re talking through the whole case. And one thing struck me.
We both talked about how lucky he was that he didn’t end up stuck on Rikers. How that very first decision anyone made in his case-to set bail in amount family could afford-dictated the rest of the case. If he had been jailed, the outcome would likely have been very different.
Wouldn’t have developed the same kind of trust w/ me & his social worker. Might have died from lackluster medical care. Wouldn’t have been able to assist us in getting info to write that motion to dismiss. Wouldn’t have been able to start recovery to show good faith before plea.
Best case scenario, would likely—if he survived—take a plea to something that didn’t carry the life sentence, but would have sent him to prison for years. Coercive environment of pretrial jail plus fear of mandatory minimums would have pushed him to plead and do time.
Now here’s the thing. Right now, NY Senate Dems are proposing a “progressive” sounding thing as a way to “tweak” new bail reform. Right now, there’s no cash bail for most misdemeanors & non-violent felonies. For violent felonies like this man was charged: Still bail eligible.
The @NYSenDems are proposing ending cash bail for all crimes. Sounds good, right? Wrong. In exchange they’d allow judges to remand (jail w/ no possibility of release) people charged with all felonies if they deem them “dangerous.” That means: This man would have been jailed!
That same judge who set bail, armed with only two choices—release or remand—given his charge, given his record, & given any kind of risk assessment’s classification as “dangerous,” would have detained him. That whole success story would never get to happen if Dems have their way.
Please do me & bail reform cause a favor. Watch/share below video to get a sense of how bail devastates, how reform helps, & how any rollbacks would be devastating. Then visit to call on lawmakers to stand firm. #norollbacks
Thanks for reading folks. My thumbs are tired.
Setting bail even if the person pays it protects judges from any accountability if something goes wrong. They can always say: “I set bail!” Armed w/ option of release or remand, in cases like this & other violent felonies they’ll jail.
PEOPLE: Please follow @JusticeNotFear. There's a campaign of fear & racism being waged by police & prosecutors in NY over bail reforms that are literally saving thousands of lives as we speak. JNF brings the hard truth, facts, & tools for you to fight back.
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