Two Men in a Spanish Jail
Sometime in the middle third of the last century, two men sit in a Spanish jail. For one, the American, this is a new venue but not an entirely foreign experience. For the other, the Spaniard, this has become all too common. In fact, the guards know the Spanish inmate so well, he’s been granted special privileges. Rather than eat the meager meals provided, he can order in from local restaurants, whenever he could scrape together the money to do so. This works out well for both the American and the Spaniard. The American had the financial resources, and the Spaniard had the means.
Compared to the other inmates, they ate well. And they conversed as best they could, sharing the stories of their lives. One night, over tapas, the American asked how it was that the Spanish inmate had acquired his special privileges. The Spaniard explained that many years of his adult life had been spent in the confines of this jail. While none of his crimes were violent or punished with long sentences, his release was always followed quickly by reincarceration. Even when let out of the jail, he could never really return to society. Those in the community knew his criminal history and would not trust him enough to hire him. And he needed to eat. Theft of food or low-level property crime was the natural consequence. And he evidently wasn’t very good at these crimes (or at least not good enough to avoid being promptly apprehended and jailed).
While this had become the nature of his existence, that didn’t mean that the Spaniard could discuss it dryly, without a sense of loss. He looked to the American and asked “¿Por qué? ¿Por qué siempre preso?” — Why? Why am I always a prisoner?
I was told this story by a dear friend—multiple times in fact—who cannot tell it anymore. Sometimes, stupidly, I would cut it short by getting to the punchline (if you can compare the final line of a sad story to the payoff of a joke). But even on the third or fourth recitation, the concluding question didn’t lose its power. And that’s chiefly because it is a question whose relevance is not limited to mid-20th century Spain.
As a criminal defense lawyer, repeat customers are good for business but bad for the soul. Law school teaches you the mechanics of indictments, case law and litigation. The bar exam makes sure some of that stuck. But it is only after wading into the practice of law that one begins to learn the challenges (and joys) of using those skills to help human beings overcome difficulties in their lives for which a legal dispute is often only one instantiation.
Recidivism is a fancy way of describing repeated criminal justice involvement. Superficially, it is the answer to the question posed in the title of this post. Glibly, the Spaniard in the story is always a prisoner because he’s frequently caught committing crimes. But the real answer is far more complicated. Repeat criminal offenses frequently happen because of the way society fails to grapple with the causes of crime in the first place.
Violence begets violence. Poverty leads to desperation. And addiction creates a myopic drive to quench an insatiable hunger. These circumstances are not at the root of every criminal allegation. Criminal defendants are not all subject to these vicious cycles. But for those who find themselves in front of a criminal court multiple times in quick succession, these patterns are often at play.
Our criminal justice system seems to believe that some combination of punishment, deterrence, treatment and supervision can break this cycle. Courts use formulas like the Level of Supervision Inventory (LSI) score to inform their sentencing decisions. In our data-driven world, it’s hard to completely dismiss such an algorithmic approach. But when given too much emphasis, things like LSI scores (or Federal Sentencing Guidelines) reduce the human beings subject to criminal punishment to nothing more than an input for a carceral calculator.
At Baldauf Masser, LLP, we do everything in our power to defeat criminal allegations when the facts or the law allow us to do so. However, many clients come to us not because they hope to entirely rebut the allegations against them but rather to avoid the maximum sentence to which they could be subject. In these instances, it is our job to humanize our clients to the prosecutor who will make an offer and the judge that will hand down a sentence. That’s why we make an effort to connect with our clients not only as lawyer and client, but person to person.
Establishing a human connection is an important part of what gets referred to as “holistic representation.” It is just as pollyannish for a lawyer to believe they can entirely resolve issues of addiction or poverty for their clients as it is for a boyfriend or girlfriend to think they can “fix” their partner. But we can help direct our clients to available tools which will allow them to address these issues themselves. For instance, many individuals charged with DUI or felony drug offenses may benefit from alcohol or drug treatment before ever facing a judge after conviction at trial or the entry of a guilty plea. While currying favor with the judge is such a benefit, it is far from the only one. Grappling with the cause of unsafe drinking or narcotic use has wide-ranging benefits for an individual’s physical and mental health. And from a criminal justice perspective, proactively addressing these issues can nip the bud of recidivism before it blooms into a noxious weed. As I noted above, repeat criminal defense customers are good for business. But they often feel like a failure on our part if they suggest that we failed in our commitment to holistic representation. We never want our clients to end up like the protagonist in the story that began this post. If you’ve been charged with a crime, reach out to us because we want to provide all the holistic guidance and tools that we can to assist you in defeating or mitigating the current charges and avoiding any criminal allegations in the future. You can do it and we can help.