5 Truth Bombs From the 'Scandal' 'How to Get Away With Murder' Crossover
The real scandal is how the justice system gets away with these injustices.
Two highly-anticipated crossover episodes of the hit tv shows “Scandal” and “How to Get Away With Murder,” both produced by Shonda Rhimes, aired last night to the delight of fans.
Viewers were thrilled to see their favorite shows collide in Shondaland — both the name of Rhimes’ production company and what fans call the fictive universe Rhimes has built — but perhaps more noteworthy is how Shondaland collided with the real-world last night.
The plot centers on lawyer Annalise Keating (played by Viola Davis) — the main character in “How to Get Away With Murder” — and the class action suit she hopes to bring before the Supreme Court. Spoiler alert: with the help of Olivia Pope (played by Kerry Washington) from “Scandal” she succeeds.
Annalise’s case argues that the state of Pennsylvania failed to provide adequate legal defense to those who could not afford their own attorneys, as is constitutionally required. She alleges that poor people, particularly poor people of color, were incarcerated unfairly and received longer sentences than those who could afford their own lawyers as a result.
And she’s not wrong. We broke down some of the claims made in last night’s two-hour tv event.
“There are people in this country that are literally punished because of disadvantages they were born into.”
In Shondaland: Olivia is specifically referring to the dozens of people represented by Annalise’s class action suit and the thousands of people like them who are currently incarcerated across the US. On the show, she means people from low-income backgrounds, particularly low-income people of color.
In the real world: Not only are people who come from low-income backgrounds often unable to afford adequate legal representation, but they also frequently cannot afford the many other costs that accompany entanglements with the legal system.
These costs include bail, court fees, and prison fees.
People who cannot make bail remain in jail — whether innocent or guilty — until their trial, Quartz reported. According to the US Department of Justice, on any given day, there are nearly half a million unconvicted people in US jails awaiting trial. These people may also be more likely to plead guilty when innocent, choosing to serve a sentence and be released rather than waiting in jail until a lawyer can take on their case, a study found.
In most states, defendants can be charged court and prison fees that include the cost of a public defender, a “room and board” fee for jail and prison stays, and even parole and probation services, NPR reported. Failure to pay these fees can result in additional fines, may be considered a probation violation, and could lead to more jail time. Experts say that poor people are the most likely to be arrested and go through the court system, and the vast majority of poor people in the US are people of color, according to government data.
“They were never given a fair defense because they couldn’t afford one.”
In Shondaland: Annalise argues that her clients did not get fair trials because they could not afford to hire their own lawyers. Instead, they were assigned public defenders.
In the real world: Just 24 states have public defender systems, and “even the best of those are hampered by lack of funding and crippling case loads,” according to the Equal Justice Initiative.
In 2007, the burden of 5.6 million cases fell on just 15,000 lawyers across 1,000 different public defender offices, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. And nearly 75% of those offices assigned more cases to each attorney than the recommended maximum.
With such a massive caseload, public defenders may not have the time to devote to their client’s cases and mistakes are more likely to be made.
“Public defenders are overworked and underpaid resulting in an inordinate amount of plea deals. Innocent people are willfully going to jail simply because they’re poor.”
In Shondaland: Olivia argues that people plead guilty because it seems like the easier, quicker option for both the accused and their public defender.
In the real world: This absolutely happens.
Public defenders have such a heavy caseload that it could be months before they can take on another case sometimes making a guilty plea the faster route out of prison.
In a 2009 speech, Attorney General Eric Holder cited the example of a 50-year-old woman who spent 11 months in jail before she was even convicted of a crime. She spent almost a year in jail waiting to be appointed a lawyer because she could neither afford to make bail nor pay for her own legal representation.
It’s very possible that had she forgone legal defense and simply pled guilty, she might have served her sentence and been released in less than 11 months.
And that’s the route many people choose, the Atlantic reported. They plead guilty to crimes, whether or not they committed them, rather than waiting for months on end to be taken on by a public defender.
“It’s about race.”
In Shondaland: Annalise says that race was determining factor in the fates of many of her clients. “One in 3 black men will go to prison versus one in 17 white men,” she tells the judge.
In the real world: Those figures come straight from the Bureau of Justice Statistics itself.
African Americans are imprisoned five times as often as white Americans, and that bias even extends to children, according to the NAACP. Black children account for 32% of children who are arrested and make up more than half of the children whose cases are escalated to criminal courts. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, Latino people are incarcerated at more than 2.5 times the rate that white people are in the US.
But people of color aren’t just arrested and imprisoned at higher rates.
They are also far less likely to be able to afford legal representation and the fees associated with the criminal justice system when they’re arrested. According to government data, people of color experience substantially higher rates of poverty in the US, with African Americans experiencing the highest rates of poverty at 33% in 2016.
Research has also shown that people of color, particularly black people, often receive harsher sentences than white people convicted of the same crime under similar circumstances due to the biases of judges and prosecutors.
“The only safeguard people of color have is the right to a defense and we won’t even give them that, which means that the promise of civil rights have never been fulfilled due to the failure of our justice system, our public defense system in particular, Jim Crow is alive and kicking.”
In Shondaland: Annalise makes this impassioned plea to the Supreme Court Justices.
In the real world: Annalise isn’t the first to call this issue the “new Jim Crow.” In fact, civil rights lawyer and legal scholar, Michelle Alexander, wrote a book of the same name that examines the mass incarceration of black people in the US — a book that is banned in North Carolina and Florida prisons.
The premise of Annalise’s entire lawsuit is also predicated on fact. In 2014, a similar class action suit was brought before the state of New York, and the state was found guilty of violating the constitution.
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