The absurd punishments in the US legal system

Remember the case of the teenager who was jailed for not doing her homework? After ProPublica publicized the case leading to calls for her release, the judge still refused to do so. But now an appeals court has overruled the judge and ordered her immediate release after spending 78 days in custody.

A Michigan teenager who has been detained since mid-May after not doing her online schoolwork was set free on Friday, after the Michigan Court of Appeals ordered her immediate release from a juvenile facility in suburban Detroit.

Grace, a high school sophomore, spent 78 days at the Children’s Village after an Oakland County family court judge found she had violated her probation on earlier charges of assault and theft. Friday’s decision comes a week after that judge denied her lawyer’s request to set her free. The lawyer then asked the appellate court to release her.

Within two hours of the court order, shortly after 5 p.m., Grace left the facility after her mother arrived to get her. She “had her bags ready to go, they jumped in the car and they were gone,” said one of Grace’s attorneys, Saima Khalil. “They were definitely emotional and happy.”

The case involving Grace, who is Black, was detailed in a ProPublica Illinois investigation this month and has drawn national scrutiny over concerns about the juvenile justice system, systemic racism and holding a teenager accountable for schoolwork during the pandemic.

But that is not the only case of egregiously harsh punishments. Consider the case of Fair Wayne Bryant who is currently serving a sentence of life imprisonment for trying to steal a pair of hedge clippers. In his case, the Michigan state supreme court refused to overturn the sentence imposed in 1997, meaning that he has already served over 23 years.

A black man in Louisiana will continue to serve a life sentence in prison for trying to steal hedge clippers after the state supreme court denied a request to review his sentence.

Fair Wayne Bryant was convicted in 1997 of attempted simple burglary.

The five justices who rejected his appeal – all white men – did not explain the reasoning for their decision, which was first reported by the Lens, a non-profit news site in New Orleans.

The supreme court’s lone dissent came from the only black or female member of the court, Chief Justice Bernette Johnson. She wrote the sentencing was a “modern manifestation” of the extreme punishments meted out to newly emancipated black men in the post-civil war era.

In Johnson’s dissent, the justice wrote that all of Bryant’s crimes were for stealing something. “It is cruel and unusual to impose a sentence of life in prison at hard labor for the criminal behavior which is most often caused by poverty or addiction,” she wrote.

The 23 years Bryant has served in prison since the 1997 has cost Louisiana taxpayers more than $518,000, Johnson noted. “If he lives another 20 years, Louisiana taxpayers will have paid almost one million dollars to punish Mr Bryant for his failed effort to steal a set of hedge clippers,” she wrote.

And then we have the case of Black Lives Matter protestors being threatened with life in prison for breaking windows and splashing red paint during a protest.

The felony criminal mischief charges are more serious because they carry a gang enhancement. Prosecutors said on Wednesday that was justified because the protesters worked together to cause thousands of dollars in damage, but watchdogs called the use of the 1990s-era law troubling, especially in the context of criminal justice reform and minority communities.

But for the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, invoking a law aimed at street gangs in troubling, especially against demonstrators of color. “You are calling participants in a protest gang members,” said attorney Jason Groth.

And there are other side-effects to criminal charges, he said. McNeil tweeted on Thursday that she was asked resign from her job in the non-profit sector and all the defendants have to post $50,000 bail to get out of jail.

“This is the highest-degree felony. This is usually reserved for murders and rapists,” said attorney Brent Huff, who represents co-defendant Madison Alleman.

These absurdly severe penalties have their roots in slavery and Reconstruction eras when black people were harshly punished to prevent them demanding their rights. There are symbols of the systemic racism that infests the US legal system.


  1. lanir says

    … And somehow I suppose I’m to think if they were in a gang and broke a window it would magically make sense to imprison them for life?

    I bet the laws would get fixed in a hurry if prosecutors started treating fraternities as gangs.

  2. jrkrideau says

    So it costs $22500/year[1] to keep Bryant in prison. Looking at Louisiana’s minimum wage, he could be paid as a full time “pensioner” for a little over half of that.

    If anyone has read Asterix, Obelix’s cry of “These Romans are nuts” seems appropriate.

    1. From a Canadian viewpoint that sounds incredibly low. Remind me not to be a guest of the Louisiana Prison Service.

  3. says

    Anyone who calls the US injustice system “equitable” is admitting that they see Black people and People of Colour as “inferior” to white people. It’s the only way to claim that charges, courts and sentencing are “appropriate for their actions”.

    Every single one of them should be repeatedly labelled as a racist by name.

  4. jrkrideau says

    How old would a sophomore be? We don’t use the term in Canada and I always forget which is which.

    Can one sue a judge for being an idiot or get him hauled up before a tribunal?

  5. Mano Singham says

    A sophomore specifically refers to someone in the second year of a four year program in either high school or in college, so it would be a person around 15 or 19.

  6. Who Cares says

    $22500 a year? Doesn’t sound too absurd if you look at the average of the EU.
    It is crazy if you compare it where I live since the costs are 4.8 times higher at and $108 000/year (with the current exchange rate).
    Sticking that kid, Grace, in prison for 78 days would have cost $58000 (at almost $750/day). Then again she wouldn’t get into prison here and if she did for the reason stated then she’d be out in 3 days, 1 day to check in, 1 day to go to school (one of the reasons juvenile prison is the most expensive/day) and catch up on the homework, 1 day to check out.

    It is the difference between a system that in some states prioritizes punishment (and keeping the status quo) to the point that rehabilitation doesn’t even exist. And a system that is (almost embarrassingly) mercantile and acknowledges that people need to get punished in a way for crimes but thinks rehabilitation is more important since working people generate income for the state.

  7. Owlmirror says

    Obelix’s cry of “These Romans are nuts”

    Obelix (or other characters) never used the slang term “nuts”. It was always “crazy”.
    “These Romans are crazy!”
    “Ils sont fous ces Romains!”

    /absurd pedantry

  8. jrkrideau says

    @ 7 Owlmirror
    You are right. It did not seem correct when I typed it but my niece has all the Asterix books (sob). I do have my little rubber figurines of Asterix, Obelix and Panoramix for my computer monitor.

  9. says

    Let’s also not forget the story of Saraya Rees (about whom our own dear Iris has written ably and well), who was 13 years old when a doctor who was not her regular doctor ordered her off the medications she was taking for a serious psychiatric disorder.

    Let’s be clear about this as well: even if the doctor had been correct to take Rees off this medication, he ended her treatment abruptly and with no support even thought the specific medication was known to cause psychosis if terminated without tapering the dose over a significant period of time (3-8 weeks, probably, possibly a few months -- the specific medication was not disclosed in news reports). This doctor took action known to harm health and known to cause psychosis, among other serious symptoms.

    In the middle of the night, with no one around to help her with her symptoms or stop her behavior, and while unable to fully perceive her own actions or exercise her own judgement because of the effects of the doctor’s violation of standards of care, she poured some gasoline on herself and the living room carpet of her home while her parents were asleep. She never attempted to set a fire, and she was only found significantly later when her parents woke up.

    Though her parents called 911 for medical help, she was arrested instead and prosecutors charged her with attempted arson and attempted murder. A bit after her 14th birthday, she was sentenced to 11 years imprisonment.

    Oh, did I mention that Rees is a Black child in a rural oregon county that is literally 0.31% Black and 91.97% white?

    Probably good that I didn’t mention it. That can’t be relevant.

  10. Matt G says

    Now, let’s sanction the judge who imposed the sentence. If these things aren’t dealt with, they will happen again.

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