Anyone who is in jail, or is trying to help someone in jail, is going to run into a variety of issues, complaints, and frustrations with “the system.” Sometimes we’re talking about things that are merely bothersome, and sometimes we’re talking about things that are outright unbelievably bad – at least to anyone who isn’t used to it already. And very often I’m asked about what I can do as a lawyer to change all of this.
The answer, quite frankly, is “not much.” When conditions are bad enough in jail, there may at least potentially be a civil remedy. In other words, there may be a lawsuit. Those have succeeded on occasion and I sometimes refer clients to the few lawyers who will sue Corrections and the government. But truth be told, it’s incredibly hard to sue over conditions in jail and it also doesn’t do anything in immediate terms. There are remedies to seek in the administrative system in jail, for specific issues and mistreatment, and when those fail (as they almost inevitably will – we’re talking about asking Corrections to police itself here) you can theoretically take that into Court. But the path for that would be long, expensive, and unlikely to get anywhere. I can imagine a few legal challenges to how things work generally, and for everyone, that might improve things eventually – but no one wants to pay for that knowing it’s a long expensive fight and won’t do anything quickly. And so on and so on.
The reason I keep my focus on parole is because it’s the one thing that’s guaranteed to get a client out of jail sooner rather than later – in other words, make a real difference in my client’s life – and it’s a practical thing that can work. For the rest of it…you know, there really are clients who barely care if you’re doing something that can help them in real terms, they just want something to be happening. That happens in law just like it happens in medicine. When someone is desperate enough, and willing to pay, any kind of action can seem like a comfort. But generally speaking, I advise those clients to find another lawyer to take their money.
I was reminded recently that people do find these articles, when they have questions about parole, issues in custody, and so on. These articles are, I believe, a fair introduction both to my own practice and to these issues generally. So the bottom line message is this. When you’re picking a legal fight – any kind of legal fight – you need to start with the question “what am I trying to accomplish?” It’s no use hiring a lawyer just because something happened and you don’t like that it happened. You’ve got to ask, what sort of outcome are you looking for? Success in a parole hearing gets someone out of jail. That’s real. For anything else, you have to define your goals. And most of the time, once you do that, you’ll realize you’re looking to hire a lawyer to make the entire system suck less. And I’m not saying that’s an unworthy goal – only that almost anyone trying to do that is completely unprepared for the fight they’re hoping to pick.