“After going through that, my life will never be the same again,” says 21-year-old Deandre Somerville after spending 10 nights in jail. His crime? The young black man overslept and missed jury duty.
Somerville initially thought it was a mistake of smaller proportions and was surprised to find that police had shown up to his grandparents’ house, where he lives, with a court summons. “My grandfather said, ‘Just go in and be honest,'” Somerville told the Associated Press. “I’ve never had a criminal background, never been arrested, never been in handcuffs. The most I’ve ever gotten was a traffic ticket so I was thinking it wouldn’t be that bad.”
He was wrong. At his September court appearance, Palm Beach County Judge John Kastrenakes, angry that Somerville had set the trial back by 45 minutes, immediately had him cuffed and declared him in contempt of court. Kastrenakes sentenced Somerville to 10 days in jail, 12 months of probation, 150 hours of community service, a $223 fine, and a formal apology.
Equating the sentence with just a “taste of jail,” Kastrenakes reminded Somerville that he could spend more time there should he fail to adequately satisfy the remaining terms of his sentence.
But after he served the time, Kastrenakes decided that those terms were no longer necessary, declaring Somerville “totally rehabilitated.” He initially reduced his sentence to three months probation and 30 hours of community service, but on Monday vacated the entire thing.
“The only reason the Court left him on a short term of probation was so that others could learn and take heed that serving on a jury is serious business deserving of attention, respect, and adherence to their oaths,” Kastrenakes wrote in his decision. “Given the abundant publicity surrounding Mr. Somerville’s case, I have concluded that the importance and seriousness of a sworn juror abiding by the law has been made clear.”
Contrary to what the judge thinks, the only thing that has been made clear is just how ludicrously cruel our criminal justice system can be.
The national backlash once again elicited comparisons to actress Felicity Huffman, whose 14-day prison sentence for her role in the college admissions scandal has branded her the unwitting poster child for “lenient” punishments received by the privileged. Amber Guyger has also joined those ranks; the white police officer was recently sentenced to 10 years in prison for shooting and killing her black neighbor after mistaking his apartment for her own. But that line-of-thinking only further perpetuates the idea that the most pervasive problem in America’s criminal justice system is that there are sentencing disparities across racial lines. That’s true, and it’s a tragedy. But the greater problem is that exceptionally punitive punishments are a thing in the first place, giving the U.S. the unfortunate marker of having the highest incarceration rate in the world. As I wrote last week:
Racial disparities in sentencing are shrinking, but the pendulum has moved in the wrong direction: Efforts to homogenize punishments with mandatory minimums have only led to more excessive punishments across the board. That includes the less privileged of all races, who were already spending too much time locked away.
That’s the wrong kind of equality.
Even so, Somerville’s case will likely be propped up as an example of our discriminatory criminal justice system. That might be true. But the bigger takeaway should be that no one deserves any amount of jail time for oversleeping.