Malice Vs. Stupidity: Screwing The Poor
September 19, 2016 ( Fault Lines) — One of the terrible things about being caught up in the criminal defense system is that the indignities defendants face on a regular basis are usually not the result of malice. Sure enough, sometimes there are atrocities like the Cash For Kids scandal, where a government official deliberately abuses the power of his office to enrich himself, in effect selling his office to the highest bidder. There are other cases, like the TRED scandal, where the police or prosecutors cheat, not for personal gain as such, but to ensure a conviction they couldn’t get were they to play by the rules.
Oftentimes, though, defendants’ lives are destroyed simply because no can be bothered to do anything else. In Scott County, Tennessee, Judge James Cotton got a new toy that he’s a little too fond of playing with:
The News Sentinel has documented more than a half-dozen instances in the past few months in which General Sessions Judge James Cotton Jr. has sent poor people to jail solely because they fell behind in paying fees to a private company that a Kentucky man, Howard Barnett, concedes he “runs out of his vehicle.”
At least 73 people were on Barnett’s monitoring client list in August in a county with a population of 30,000. By comparison, only five defendants are on ankle monitoring in Knox County (population 451,324) — a murder defendant, three child rape defendants and a domestic assault defendant.
What’s particularly egregious in this case is the complete lack of oversights and safeguards for putting people on the ankle monitor:
Cotton admitted in an interview he did not vet Barnett or his firm before allowing Barnett to set up shop there. The judge conceded he’s not sure that his practices in the use of electronic monitoring are constitutional. (Emphasis added.)
Oh, okay. It’s like he’s a judge or anything.
The way Cotton and Barnett tell it, Barnett showed up one day with a demonstration of his gear. Neither could say when. Records suggest Cotton launched the ankle monitoring program late last year. There is no paperwork associated with the two men’s agreement.
“He has no contract with us. He’s just sort of a service provider,” Cotton said. “He presented himself and talked about what he did. I love the technology. … Basically, all of this got started because I was looking for another tool in my judicial toolbox.”
A tool to do what? Keep 24/7 track of people arrested for driving without a license, or petty drug offenders? Why, exactly, does he need to do that? He never says, but when the people who have to pay for this wonderful new tool don’t come up with the cash, off to the clink they go.
It doesn’t help that Cotton and Barnett can’t get their stories straight.
Barnett also denied sending a weekly report to the court detailing who owes him money and how much — until a reporter produced a copy of one. He then said a “family member” compiles the report. He could not explain why delinquencies — even in cases in which the accused is no longer on ankle monitoring — were listed, given his insistence he did not seek jailing.
Cotton said Barnett’s firm was the only one he used. He said Barnett seeks the jailing of defendants who don’t pay, and Cotton acquiesces.
Cotton acknowledged the U.S. Supreme Court and the Tennessee Supreme Court bar the jailing of defendants simply because they are too poor to pay fees and court costs, absent proof they “willfully” refused to cough up money. But he defended his actions anyway.
“Honestly, I don’t know how I could make it financially work any other way,” he wrote in a follow-up email to the News Sentinel. “If the service provider is left only to the remedy of civil collection of unpaid monitoring fees that accrue while bail is pending, he’ll pack up and leave.”
In other words, Barnett won’t get paid unless Cotton throws the defendants in jail and forces them to cough up the nut. So what if it’s unconstitutional? Doesn’t Barnett’s bottom line matter more than what those hippies on the Supreme Court say?
If this were fiction, there would be evidence of some kind of shenanigans…like Barnett was Cotton’s brother-in-law; or Barnett was paying Cotton a rake of the fees. However, there’s no evidence of that, though hopefully the relevant authorities in Tennessee will investigate that little matter.
But it’s more likely that this happened exactly like Barnett and Cotton said it did. Barnett showed up in Cotton’s office with a cool new toy. Cotton decided he would like to play with it…because why not? He wasn’t paying for it. Making sure that Barnett was on the level, or that he was depriving defendants of their liberty consistent with the Constitution he was sworn to uphold, didn’t matter. After all, the folks getting locked up were only poor people.
That’s the scary part of this story. So far, this doesn’t look like corruption…just the system at work.