It was a waking nightmare for Joy Morales. For 49 days, she languished behind bars in two separate states for a crime she didn’t commit. She could easily prove it wasn’t her, but no one would listen.
The ordeal started a year earlier, with a causal acquaintance from high school who Joy hadn’t spoken to in twenty years. Devanne Archibeque was driving drunk in Arizona when an officer pulled her over. She told the officer she was Joy to evade the consequences. Even though she had no ID to prove it, the officer charged her with a DWI and booked her as Joy. When Devanne didn’t show up to her court date, a warrant was issued for Joy’s arrest. Once she found out about the warrant, Joy went to court and cleared her name — or so she thought.
A few months later, she was pulled over in Hobbs and placed under arrest on an active warrant. Joy told the arresting officer about the mix-up. He didn’t listen. Behind bars, Joy pleaded with correctional officers to compare the old Arizona booking photo and finger prints with hers. They refused. Joy asked for a lawyer. They denied her constitutional right to legal counsel for over a month. The Hobbs Police eventually extradited her to Arizona, but not before she allegedly suffered sexual harassment and assault while in custody. Once in Arizona, it took a week before officers finally compared the finger prints and released her.
Somehow, this story barely made a splash — appearing only on local news station KRQE. But stories like Joy’s need to be told because they are exactly why we need criminal justice reform.
Just because someone is arrested, does not mean that person is guilty. Too often there is a presumption of guilt, rather than a presumption of innocence, even though the latter is supposed to be a cornerstone of the American justice system.
Opponents of criminal justice reform in New Mexico often try to connect reforms — like the recent bail changes — to rising crime. They call for more people to be detained before their day in court. They call for restoring the practice of issuing excessive bail, which often results in de facto detention, especially for poor people and people of color. They make no mention of the fact that a historical over-reliance of bail in our country has created a two-tier system of justice — one for the rich and one for the poor. They want more people behind bars or on the hook with a bondsman before trial.
This old way of doing things not only fails to serve the cause of justice, it inflicts real harm on individuals and society at large.
Each day someone is held in jail, the chance of ever having a fair trial diminishes.
Each day someone is held in jail, the chance of ever having a fair trial diminishes. Witnesses and evidence may disappear. All too often, innocent people, many of whom are breadwinners in their families, plead guilty just to go home. A conviction then makes it incredibly difficult to find meaningful work and to put food on the table.
Overly punitive approaches to crime have failed over and over again because they don’t solve its root causes. In fact, these policies can actually exacerbate crime because they make it impossible for people with criminal convictions, and even those who have been merely charged, to reintegrate into society.
Our communities are hurting and people want solutions now. But if we truly want to make our communities safe, we can’t call for short-sighted fixes that aren’t actually fixes at all. We’ll have to put in the long-term work that our communities deserve.
We have to free ourselves from the belief that the more people we put behind bars, the safer we’ll be.
We can have a fair justice system that upholds people’s rights while maintaining safe communities. But to do that, we have to free ourselves from the belief that the more people we put behind bars, the safer we’ll be. We have refuse to buy into the idea that returning to a reliance on money bail will reduce crime. We have to remember pre-trial imprisonment is supposed to be the carefully limited exception, not the rule. Making it the rule only ensures inequality will persist, families will be torn apart, and entire communities will be harmed. It also ensures that innocent people like Joy Morales will be presumed guilty and treated as such.
Stories like Joy’s should wake us up to the realization that no one is safe when we sacrifice our civil liberties and rights for a false sense of security.