Facing real threats of mistreatment, assault and even death, inmates at the Allegheny County Jail need champions for justice. Once incarcerated himself, Mark Thompson saw individuals who were in jail when they shouldn’t be or in jail too long, because they didn’t have legal counsel at critical moments after arrest.

As a result, they were less likely to receive a non-monetary or affordable cash bail for their release, resulting in longer pre-trial detention that could motivate them to plead guilty at the earliest opportunity. Individuals commonly do this despite being legally or factually innocent, often without realizing the long-term consequences of this decision.

More than 70 percent of the U.S. inmate population cannot read above a fourth grade level and 75 percent of the inmate population at the Allegheny County Jail has an identified mental health or substance abuse diagnosis. These disadvantages make it nearly impossible for people to make informed decisions about the charges against them.

In response, Thompson — who holds a degree in criminal justice from Point Park University — founded Pittsburgh-based JASON Project. JASON stands for Judicial Assistance Serving Our Neighborhoods.

When inmates do meet with a public defender, many get the widespread practice of “meet ‘em, greet ‘em and plead ‘em,” where public defenders meet briefly with the accused and encourage them to plead guilty. This practice compromises the individual’s Sixth Amendment rights, results in civil lawsuits and makes a mockery of the justice system. Individuals who don’t understand the legal system or their constitutional rights could lose everything without honest advocates on their side.

Thompson realized how woefully uninformed detainees were when he was detained for a child custody matter in the 1990s. Once released, he returned to Point Park University to complete his degree. He is accredited by the VA and the American Legion to represent veterans against the VA with their claims. He also developed a Prison Re-entry Program for the Butler County Prison.

The JASON project — named after a cellmate who encouraged Thompson to study law — helps those charged with low-level offenses understand the charges against them; the available evidence; the strengths and weaknesses of their case; their constitutional rights; and the judicial process. JASON helps people who must navigate this process despite being unfamiliar with legalese or a lack of education, or struggling with mental health issues, substance abuse, homelessness or poverty.

Thompson acknowledges that many of his clients are guilty of something, but they are rarely guilty of all charges against them. Police and prosecutors regularly stack charges, pressing multiple — often redundant — criminal offenses, each with their own sentencing outcome.

This, combined with public defenders’ lack of time and resources and the defendant’s fear of harsher outcomes, results in more than 95 percent of criminal cases being resolved by a guilty plea. Every client Thompson has worked with has experienced a favorable outcome, usually by having more serious charges dismissed or withdrawn, which helps clients avoid incarceration.

People unaware of their legal rights and frightened by the potential outcomes are more likely to evade initial court hearings, which can result in a warrant for their arrest and lengthy pretrial detention. By empowering individuals to make informed decisions about their pending charges and supporting them during the court process, judicial assistance such as that offered by the JASON Project has the potential to reduce the number of local pre-trial detainees.

The historic reliance on pre-trial detention and the use of cash bail, which many inmates could not afford, prompted the Allegheny Public Defender’s Office to pilot a new program in 2017 that increased the availability of legal counsel earlier in the judicial process. Yet two-thirds of the people charged with a crime in the county remain unassisted by counsel at the preliminary arraignment.

Unnecessary pretrial detention reduces public safety and produces collateral consequences that make it difficult for people to remain law-abiding. Most Allegheny County Jail inmates are pre-trial detainees, as is the nationwide norm, so these services can strategically reduce jail populations and — as it pertains to conditions at the local jail — even save lives.

With such rampant inconsistencies and tragic disparities inside the county jail and government structures that surround it, well-intended outside voices such as Thompson’s are desperately needed so that rights, resources and lives can be preserved.

As Pittsburgh’s own Mr. Fred Rogers explained: When confronted with the horrors of the daily news, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” The JASON Project proves that there can be real change driven by those who simply see a flaw in the process and set out to help.

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