Beth collaborated with NMAG member Sophie to share her experience with the Grand Traverse County jail and legal system. Beth’s name has been changed at her request.
Beth takes full responsibility for the original crime she was charged with – driving under the influence – back in 2018. She also knows that she is accountable for her own actions. So when she fell off the wagon in the summer of 2019 after 8 months of sobriety, she knew she was going to have to work even harder to pick herself back up. But what she doesn’t understand is why the criminal legal system she has come to know so well seems designed at every turn to make it less likely that she will be able to live a productive and law-abiding life. Almost everything that has been thrown at her within the last year from the Grand Traverse County Jail and court system has made her recovery even more of a challenge than it needs to be.
Beth thinks that because she had two previous DUIs from over 15 years ago, the court thought the best way to respond to her slip up after her DUI in 2018 was with nothing but punishment and hoops to jump through. But if the criminal legal system really cared about her recovery, and understood that relapses are an almost inevitable part of that recovery, then they should have responded with a little more empathy and patience.
Instead, Beth was forced to remain in jail for 6 months. Charged with three offenses – at least two of which simply did not happen – Beth chose not to accept them, soon learning how difficult it is to try to prove your innocence in our criminal legal system, especially when that system looks down on you. Because Beth remained in jail for so long, she was kicked out of sobriety court, which seems to be nothing less than a sad irony. Considering the tenacious nature of addiction, one would think that a sobriety court of all places would be understanding of the need for 2nd, 3rd and 4th chances. When her boyfriend tried to bond her out with $5,000, the court refused to take the money. Instead, she sat in jail while being charged a $3,700 jail housing fee, in addition to other fines and fees. When she sent in a payment, the court didn’t make a record of it and therefore claimed she wasn’t paying and sent her to collections. On top of that, some of her other fines started charging her while she was incarcerated, but because she had no means to pay (they wouldn’t let her be a part of the work crew in the GT jail because she hadn’t actually been convicted of a crime), those bills started going to collections, too. To say that the financial burden of incarceration has been a headache for Beth is a gross understatement.
Anyone with financial stress will tell you what kind of a toll that takes on a person’s mental health and happiness. Add the anxiety and depression associated with addiction, and it’s not difficult to understand why Beth feels the criminal legal system seems hell-bent on sabotaging her recovery. She feels as though she is just a number to them, not a human impacted by a multitude of socioeconomic structures; not a human with flaws, fears and the ability to make mistakes, learn and grow. For much of her time in jail, Beth was so afraid of going to prison, as that’s what the court-appointed lawyer told her was likely. In addition to her anxiety, Beth also has severe claustrophobia. She was physically shaking the first day of her incarceration, her mind and body frantically trying to figure out how to cope with her new circumstances. She is committed to her recovery, despite the court not seeing that in her, so she started hosting her own AA meetings in the jail. The jail itself was only hosting one per week, and that just wasn’t enough. Most of the people she interacted with working at the jail treated her like she was the ‘scum of the earth’, and there was almost no culture that supported recovery and rehabilitation.
After finally reaching an understanding with the court on what her conviction should be and being sentenced to one year probation, Beth was released from jail as she had already served more time than her conviction required. She is now seven months sober and still jumping through hoops to prove her innocence. The local court system sent the state the wrong information about her convictions, saying she has one that she actually doesn’t. Now she’s struggling with making phone calls and figuring out what the process is for correcting her criminal record. Beth finds herself questioning how long she will have to deal with correcting the mistakes that the criminal legal system has made, as well as her own. The walls she keeps hitting are enough to make her think about having a drink, although she’s been able to resist. Beth points out it’s not so surprising that some of the same folks keep getting entangled in the criminal legal system, when the message is always one of punishment rather than support and recovery.