Berkshire lawyers say distance affects cases
PITTSFIELD — Women held at the Western Massachusetts Regional Women's Correctional Center while awaiting trial in Berkshire County are at a disadvantage, Berkshire County defense attorneys say.
For some women, anxieties and frustrations linked to that distance sometimes lead them to plead guilty to defensible charges to cut short the trial process, with hopes of eventually coming home sooner.
"I don't mean to imply this is a cruel or unusual punishment," said attorney Joseph Zlatnik. "But at the same time, it is at least colloquially cruel to do this to someone who has not been convicted of a crime."
The physical distance between Berkshire County and Chicopee is only part of the difficulty representing clients held there, said attorney Katherine Brennan.
"Not only the drive out," she said. "A lot of times, you have to coordinate things with witnesses and family members and usually everybody is around here, and the client is held in Chicopee, so it kind of makes it more difficult."
Zlatnik said it is far easier to be in touch with male clients than female clients.
"We have a lot of [attorneys] who are already extremely inundated with clients," he said. "And so if it takes an additional three hours to travel out there, talk to a client and come back, that's three hours that we can't spend on focusing on actual, productive work for other clients."
The distance frustrates and alarms family members of defendants as well, said attorney Shannon Plumb.
"They don't understand, `Why is she in Chicopee? Why isn't she here? You mean I have to drive to Chicopee to see her? How am I going to do that?' " Plumb said, echoing comments she has heard from family members and friends of clients. "We field a lot of that."
"Relatives can't drive there, children can't see their mothers, it's more expensive to bail people out, because you have to include that travel expense," Plumb said.
The travel expenses aren't just incurred by those visiting. The state reimburses court-appointed attorneys for their travel when consulting with clients.
In most of these cases, the women being held on bail qualify to receive the services of a court-appointed attorney.
"The reality is, the vast majority of people who are held on pretrial bail for any period of time are folks, who are, by their nature, poor and whose families are poor," Zlatnik said.
Lack of money worsens the distance, he said.
"Because these are people who don't have means, by definition, they also tend to be the same people who don't have cars, or don't have licenses or are working and therefore don't have time during the day to visit the jail," Zlatnik said. "So, the net result of it is, it alienates people from their families."
The attorneys said the charges for which most of their female clients are held are nonviolent larceny-type offenses like shoplifting. Even a bail as low as $50 might be out of reach, Zlatnik said.
"They can't even come up with $50, and I can't find a family member to do it, or if I do find a family member, it's somebody who lives out in Michigan, or another state," she said.
Plumb said that, in some cases, the amount of bail exceeds the maximum penalty for the charged offense. For example, Plumb knows of situations where women have been held on $150 bail on a shoplifting charge.
"So, they're held 72 miles away from their home on $150 bail, for a crime, if found guilty, they'd be paying [a fine of] less than $150," Plumb said.
The cumulative effect of being held in Chicopee tends to wear on the women's resolve, Brennan said.
"They're pretty broken down when I get there, they want out. It's tough," she said.
Plumb said the despair often can lead to a decision to wrap up their cases before the pretrial process is complete. "They plead out to stuff that they're not guilty of," she said.
Plumb recalled the case of one client held in Chicopee for whom a legal defense had been prepared.
"She said, `I'll never get out of here.' She was going to be in there for four more months in order to take the case to trial. That's one of the hardest things, to sit there and beg a client, `Please let's go forward' — and then just look at them, and be like, `I get it.'"
Bob Dunn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @BobDunn413 on Twitter and 413-496-6249.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.