Michael Tyree’s Legacy… What will that be?

Photo Credit: kazan.vperemen.com (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Hilbert Morales

Recently, the three corrections officers who beat Michael Tyree to death (August 26, 2015) were found guilty of second-degree murder. Sentencing will be scheduled. Tyree was in a jail cell in protective custody because of his mental health issues. This incident exposed the urgent need to change the local incarceration mis-use. A second case involving two other correctional officers is presently being adjudicated in the Santa Clara Superior Court.

What will be Michael Tyree’s legacy? This incident exposed severe faults in the local correctional system which needs to be addressed without fail. Many are concerned, especially low income marginalized persons who have experienced mistreatment while in protective custody. In addition, mental health and behavioral health advocates are interested as well as LGBTQ members? What follows is based upon my analysis which led me to, ‘what needs to be done’, if the death of Michael Tyree is to leave an improvement of current law enforcement-judicial systems as a legacy. What is required is a commitment to address the current punitive system of law and order as enforced by law enforcement-judicial system when individuals begin their personal journey which may require protective custody (i.e., being jailed).

Justice takes time, transparency (truthful facts) and sufficient resources in hand or else the wheels of Justice turn very slowly, if at all. Especially when those involved and responsible have other priorities and responsibilities.

As a consequence of this Michael Tyree case, the present operations of the county jails became public and visible. County jails need to become reliably transparent and humane.

In the recent past, I have recommended the Sheriff become an appointed professional who reports to the County Executive (and is subject to annual performance reviews which the incumbent elected official sheriff has escaped). This public servant needs to become a professional appointee and should not be an elected official with undisclosed training and experience.

In addition, since some 45% of all jailed inmates have mental health/behavioral health issues, it is essential that three additional actions be undertaken as goals to be accomplished:

1) That new county jail project needs to temporarily be suspended until it is determined that the amenities which permit full psychological/psychiatric assessment can be made of each individual who is to experience protective custody services. The purpose is to determine whether that individual is a good candidate for rehabilitation or consideration of alternatives to experiencing incarceration. With a full assessment an appropriate full custody assignment may be made. There is a possibility that a lower incarcerated inmate census could result (and be accompanied with budget operational reductions especially when alternatives to incarceration become available and are applied on a case by case basis.

2) Alternatives to incarceration must become legal and available especially for those cases involving low income individuals who do not have in hand the personal resources to post bail. Under current practices these individuals are jailed at a cost of $75,000/year (which equates to $2,055 per day in contrast to $12,000 per year ($33 per day) when monitored by probation personnel.

This alternative approach could be applied to those individuals who are determined not to be 1) sexual predators; 2) physically violent; and 3) have substance abuse issues. This alternative approach may not significantly endanger the community safety & security. It enables minor offenders to stay in relationship with job, family, friends, faith organization, and community. It needs to be devised and implemented as a preferred low cost alternative.

An objective is to end up with a law enforcement-judicial system which is less punitive and much more humanely appropriate.

3) It is very important, to include/involve the Superior Court’s Presiding Judge, District Attorney, and Public Defenders because this approach of ‘using alternatives to traditional sentencing’ must be legally adopted by our local judicial system (i.e., Superior Court of SCCo)…otherwise…nothing changes.

Be mindful that Judges and lawyers traditionally practice the use of precedents (which means our judicial system looks backward to determine precedents extant and applicable. The Judicial leaders must be asked to become proactive in this instance.

Another factor: Consider inclusion of the entire social costs of the current law enforcement-judicial system and its practices which end up exposing many to the correctional systems approach of “suppression, safety, and supervision” when in the jail’s protective custody. Today, that exposure needs to be mitigated, especially for those individuals guilty of no harsh criminality…usually a misdemeanor.

Also, the complaint methodology of inmates and citizens must become subject to a citizens oversight/monitoring group to ensure that those who have a conflict of interest do not have an opportunity to white-wash matters which need to be addressed.

This is a very complex community issue which provides several opportunities to improve those issues and practices which today are not fully transparent with the consequence that too many individuals…especially those belonging to marginalized communities, get caught up in the current system. These disadvantaged individuals are presently at an immense disadvantage which has been totally unwarranted; unethical, and immoral…basically inhumane. These alternatives need a scheduled process of implementation which will result in justice becoming available to all regardless of social station or available wealth.

Let’s not neglect to address the needs of those who have mental health/behavioral health issues by addressing the need for more psychiatric facilities coupled with mental health-behavioral health modification programs. The final version will be more humane, effective and much less punitive. And economies of scale are possible resulting in more efficient use of available scarce resources. This approach will create many jobs for health care professionals, probation, and social services personnel while leaving the most hardened criminal and violent individuals in the protective custody care of correctional officers.

If the above improvements are developed and implemented, the untimely death of Michael Tyree will have served a noble purpose. Let’s try to give Tyree family this tangible consolation gift.