As a former mental health chief at New York City’s Rikers Island, I watch TV crime dramas with special interest, especially when the action switches to Rikers. No crime series includes the notorious lockup more often than the enduring Law & Order. While this popular TV series makes for satisfying entertainment, and even better PR for our vaunted system, I am always struck by the vast difference between these shows and real life. In each Law & Order episode, tenacious cops track leads and leave no stone unturned as they hunt down perpetrators of crimes, both minor and heinous. After the suspects are arrested, those who cannot make bail are frequently held on Rikers Island, where they await their day in court. And as the barred gate slams shut, the police work is finished. Dun-Dun. The judicial process takes over, assuring us that the detainee sitting in that jail cell is innocent until proven guilty. He will have his day in court, by gosh, his constitutional right. If he cannot afford legal counsel, the court will appoint a lawyer. Attorneys in crisp suits will then spend sleepless nights preparing for trial. Prosecutors will stop at nothing to prove guilt, while defense lawyers use every ounce of their legal acumen trying to prove otherwise. When the fateful day arrives, which it does very quickly, consistent with “right to a speedy trial,” the courtroom drama unfolds, and by the end of the show, the verdict is read – Guilty, or Not Guilty. Justice is served. The TV gets flicked off with the knowledge that the guilty will be punished, the innocent exonerated, and that our criminal justice system is in fine working order!
Yet in real life, an entirely different process unfolds. Having worked closely with the people sitting in those cells on Rikers, awaiting their promised day in court, the biggest difference is that unlike Law & Order, where arrest is followed by trial, in reality, only a handful of the Rikers detainees will ever go to trial. Roughly speaking, for every hundred thousand felony arrests in any given year, the capacity of courtrooms, lawyers and judges is for approximately 3,000 of these cases to be tried. The bottleneck to get to trial is so badly backlogged that there is no such thing as a “speedy trial.” If Law & Order was to run true to form, then after an alleged perpetrator is arrested and shipped to Rikers, the TV audience would have to mark their calendars for at least three years later to find out what happens next.
And what does happen to the real-life detainee while he waits? Most likely, a plea deal is offered by the district attorney’s office, and the defense lawyer will push the detainee to accept it. Unlike the determined defense attorneys of TV lore, the overworked public defender has no interest in trial strategies, tracking leads, and nailing down expert witnesses. Legal consultations are hurried affairs in court bullpens. If the detainee agrees to the offered deal, he foregoes his day in court, and accepts some measure of guilt. The tradeoff is a lighter sentence than if convicted at trial. Whether guilty or innocent, most succumb to the plea bargain so as to move things along — and get the hell off Rikers Island. And if the detainee refuses the deal, he must survive years in jail. He might get jumped, endure beatings by guards, or perhaps be thrown into solitary confinement for some minor jailhouse infraction.
These things happened to many of the “presumed innocent” that I worked with, and that I encouraged to hold out for trial. All of these things happened to Kalief Browder, the young man whose tragic plight on Rikers was so thoroughly detailed in the media. Arrested for swiping a backpack, he vehemently denied it, and because he could not afford bail, waited three long years for his “speedy trial.” But after his release, he emerged as a broken person who couldn’t put the horror of Rikers behind him, and committed suicide. Tragically, Kalief’s ordeal is not unique. Thousands assert their innocence, but will never see their case unfold the way it does on Law & Order. Most will grab the plea deal, not because they’re guilty, but because they must survive.
Law & Order is an enjoyable series, viewed by millions. The only danger in this innocent entertainment is when it masks the horrible truth, and people start believing this is how the system actually works.
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Mary E. Buser received her Master's degree from Columbia University, where she was the recipient of the Overbrook Award, in recognition of outstanding clinical and academic achievement. Prior to Rikers Island, she was co-founder and first director of the Samaritans of New York, a suicide prevention hotline.