Fiona Apple uses her voice to challenge Prince George’s justice system


In the first of eight videos that show Fiona Apple talking about how the court system in Prince George’s County, Maryland is failing people, the Grammy-winning singer explains why she’s using her voice to speak out about the issue.

“The purpose of doing this is just to inform you, because there’s an entity trying to keep you all oblivious to what’s going on behind closed doors, behind closed and locked doors,” she says. “I’m talking about jails and jails, and I’m talking about courtrooms.”

The video is only 27 seconds long, but it’s long enough to get people hooked.

As of Wednesday, the video had garnered more than 1.6 million views, and the seven videos that followed it had garnered hundreds of thousands more. Since these videos were posted on Monday, people across the country have been sharing them and expressing their outrage at an issue that many probably wouldn’t otherwise have experienced.

Because of the Apple videos, which were posted on Twitter by civil rights lawyer Scott Hechinger, people are suddenly talking about what’s happening in Prince George’s County to people on remand.

In the videos, Apple breaks down complex issues into simple explanations.

“Now remember, when you’re in front of the judge, when you’re there for your bail review, you haven’t been found guilty of anything. These are just allegations. And you should be able to take advantage of the presumption of innocence,” she says in a video. She explains that there are only two reasons why people should be kept in prison until they have had a trial. “The first is if there is clear and convincing evidence that you are a danger to the community, and the second reason is if there is clear and convincing evidence that you are a flight risk.”

But too often people remain in jail in Prince George’s County even after a judge determines they are not a danger or a flight risk, she said. She then highlights the devastating impacts this can have on their lives.

“If you’re detained before trial, it’s not just an inconvenience. You are traumatized. And it’s not just you,” she says, explaining how children and older parents who depend on this person are also hurt. “If you had a job, you lost your job. Guess what happens then? You can’t pay your rent. You lose your place and then you become homeless. And then the next time you have a court date, you don’t get the notice and then they’re like, ‘Oh, your non-appearance means you’re a flight risk’, and they keep you on again in prison. Every time you touch the system, it sticks to your skin.

Apple, who lives in California, may seem an unlikely advocate for those detained in a state where she does not reside. But she has been a court watcher in Prince George’s County for the past few years, and in that role observed court proceedings from a distance. After the coronavirus caused the courts to start offering online access, Apple and other Court Watch PG volunteers began witnessing what was happening in those courtrooms through their computers and phones.

Court watchers, with help from Fiona Apple, are fighting to maintain virtual access beyond the pandemic

My colleague Katie Mettler wrote an article in March about how these watchers feared their virtual access could eventually be cut off and called on lawmakers to make this courtroom transparency permanent. In that article, she quoted Carmen Johnson, the director of Court Watch PG, telling lawmakers, “This access for the public is absolutely necessary, not wanted.”

Necessary, not wanted. This distinction is important. I started my career as a court and court reporter, so I attended many hearings and trials. Based on these experiences alone, I can attest that more — not less — transparency is needed if we are to have a fairer criminal justice system. I’ve personally seen people not heard due to language barriers or other factors, and I’ve seen cases change direction once those courtrooms fill up with media and other observers. .

What makes Apple’s recent videos worth our attention is that it gets people talking about an often overlooked part of our criminal justice system. What happens after someone is arrested but not yet convicted affects people around us every day, but we often only connect with the process when we are faced with extreme examples, such as when a surprisingly low bail is set for a wealthy suspect accused of a serious crime. .

The process that exists in Prince George’s County is now on trial, and it will inevitably take time for this matter to play out in court. But even without knowing how it will end, looking at what started it provides insight into how the pre-trial process can affect lives.

The judges ordered their release from prison. They were not released, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit was brought by nine plaintiffs who claim they were unlawfully detained for weeks or months before their trial. The lawsuit describes them as languishing in prison, a time that has seen them lose jobs, homes, time with their children and chances to attend the funerals of loved ones.

In one case detailed in the trial, a woman with three children and 15 grandchildren spent Christmas and New Years in prison, away from her family. At that time, according to the lawsuit, she lost her car after it was towed away and the costs accrued beyond an amount she could afford. She also lost her home after missing a rental assistance appointment. “After her release, the state dropped all charges against her,” the lawsuit says. “She remains homeless to this day.”

In another case detailed in the lawsuit, a 16-year-old fell behind in school and is at risk of being withheld from a grade due to his prolonged pre-trial detention. The lawsuit describes him as being detained despite his attorney submitting a fact sheet stating he ‘has never been convicted of a crime or failed to appear in court’ and a copy of his mother’s lease. “While in prison,” the lawsuit reads, the teenager “was placed on suicide watch in the adult medical unit. He was allowed out of his cell for one hour a day, usually between midnight and 1am.

The plaintiffs — who are represented by Civil Rights Corps, the WilmerHale law firm and the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University Law Center — point to systemic problems in how the county handles bail.

“A judge has ruled that each of these individuals can be safely released into the community with appropriate conditions,” the lawsuit says. “Nevertheless, each individual remains in jail, in violation of their state and federal constitutional rights, because the judges of the Prince George’s County District and Circuit Court abdicated their responsibilities and instead referred to non-judicial county officials not responsible the decision of whether, when and under what conditions the presumed innocent person will be released.

The lawsuit says these county officials, who work for the Department of Corrections, take weeks or months to make decisions and do so in a non-transparent manner.

In its recent videos, Apple tells viewers that court watchers have lost their virtual access. Instead, she says, they now receive a hard-to-hear procedural sound. She compares the sound quality to the garbled voices of adults in Charlie Brown or an announcement in a New York subway station.

She ends her videos with a plea.

“Please be careful,” she said. “Please pay attention to this.”

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