Consider the following cases:
(1) In June 2013, a 16 year old boy was arrested after crashing a pick-up truck. He stole the car, was speeding, playing chicken with oncoming cars, and had more than three times the legal limit of alcohol in his blood. He lost control of the vehicle and killed four pedestrians, including a pastor. He was charged with four counts of intoxication manslaughter and two counts of intoxication assault. He pled guilty, and while the prosecution advocated for 20 years in prison, the judge sentenced him to 10 years of probation and time in a rehab facility. He was given no jail time.
(2) In January 2015 a man was caught in the middle of raping an unconscious 22-year old woman behind a dumpster. After he was arrested, the police did not release his mug shot to the press, but rather released a polished image of the perpetrator with a bright smile and a nice suit and it wasn’t until enormous public pressure that they finally released the mug shot. He was found guilty of three felony counts of sexual assault. The judge reduced his sentence to six months, stating that a longer sentence could have “a severe impact” on his career. He was released after only three months.
(3) In July 2014 a man was approached by police on suspicion of selling loose cigarettes. He said that he wasn’t and added that he was tired of being harassed. The police then began arrest him, and in the process placed him in a choke hold. As five officers held him down he was able to say “I can’t breathe”, before being choked to death. Despite the medical examiner ruling his death a homicide and the entire incident being caught on video, the grand jury would not even indict the officer who strangled him.
(4) In August 2014 an 18 year old man and his 22 year old friend were confronted by police. They were not committing any crimes, but nonetheless were told to get out of the street. A scuffle ensued while the police officer was still in his car. The officer fired his weapon, probably hitting the 18-year old in the hand, and the two began to flee. The officer got out of his car and started shooting at the 18-year old as he was fleeing. He was shot once in the back and then another five times as he turned and fell. The police later claimed that the 18-year old had tried to take the officer’s firearm and then, after running away, turned back and rushed towards the officer. The grand jury did not charge the officer in a case based on a prosecution that was so terrible that it could easily have served as a legal defence of the officer.
Let us see if we can find any differences between these cases that might have led to such different responses from the justice system.
The first was Ethan Couch, who was from an extremely wealthy family. His lawyers actually argued that Ethan had diminished responsibility because he was so wealthy that he could not tell the difference between right and wrong. The judge actually accepted this argument, and he was sentenced to serve in a high-priced California drug rehabilitation center, with no jail time. This is the famous “affluenza defence”; the rich can now claim that they can’t be held responsible for any crimes they commit literally because of their wealth.
In case you were wondering whether Ethan turned over a new leaf after his “punishing” experience in a $450K-a-year rehab facility, he was caught violating his parole on tape and fled the country with his mother in 2016. After he was extradited back to the US he finally got some jail time: A grand total of less than two years, although it appears that as of February he will be remaining in jail for another year.
The second is Brock Turner who was an athlete: a swimmer with aspirations for competing in the Olympics. The victim described waking up in hospital after the attack covered in blood and bandages. His father made a statement saying that his son should not go to jail or have his life ruined for “20 minutes of action”. He was found guilty in March 2016 on three counts: assault with intent to commit rape of intoxicated or unconscious person, penetration of an intoxicated person, and penetration of an unconscious person. While he faced a possible 14 years in prison the judge, expressing concern about how it might affect Turner’s career, gave him only six months of which he served only three. Rather than counting his blessings Turner tried to have the conviction overturned.
Meanwhile the judge who handed out the lenient sentence, who was once himself an athlete at the same college that was attended by Turner, sought in court to block signature-collection efforts that were calling for him to be removed from the bench. This was overturned, and efforts to recall him continue today.
The third was Eric Garner. Five police officers were involved in the arrest of an unarmed man suspected of a petty crime. He was denied trial, and despite a plea that he could not breathe, the police continued to strangle him. Despite the medical claim of homicide and the entire incident being filmed, the police involved were not indicted. The police then went on to smear Eric Garner’s name, calling him a “career criminal” who somehow caused his own death by resisting arrest. The man who filmed the death has claimed to have been smeared by prosecutors, and he is now serving four year sentence.
The fourth was Michael Brown, whose killing sparked off the protests in Ferguson in 2014 and popularised the Black Lives Matter movement. He was an unarmed teenager and it seems almost certain that he was shot from behind as he ran away. He was unarmed, had no prior criminal record, and died in the street without any arrest or trial. It was not enough for the police to murder the young teenager, but they then went on a publicity campaign to smear his name, by releasing a series of unsubstantiated allegations against him. He was linked to gang violence, a video tape of him allegedly stealing some cigarillos was released to the public (this was not the reason why he was confronted by the officer), and he was described as having “dabbled in drugs and alcohol” and “had taken to rapping” lyrics that were occasionally “vulgar”. Meanwhile Darren Wilson, the officer who murdered him, was never put on trial and it is alleged that he later raised $1 million through an online crowdfunding petition.
Did you notice the difference?
Could it have been that the first two were from rich white families and the last two were from poor black families?
In case you think I am cherry-picking some case studies, consider these statistics:
(1) African Americans and Hispanics make up 56% of the prison population despite being 32% of the US population;
(2) African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites.
(3) African Americans and whites use drugs at similar rates, but the imprisonment rate of African Americans for drug charges is almost 6 times that of whites.
(4) Black people are 3 times more likely to die in interactions with police than white people.
(5) The median annual income of incarcerated people, prior to their incarceration, is 41% less than non-incarcerated people of similar ages, regardless of ethnic background.
Pointing out the obvious
It is undeniable that there is a two-tiered justice system in the US; one for the wealthy and another for everyone else. The wealthy are given second chances and the benefit of the doubt; judges have consideration for the wellbeing and future careers of the wealthy. Everyone else is shown no mercy by the police or the judge, especially if you are poor and/or a minority. They are in a court system where 95% of cases never make it to trial, and are surrounded by a horde of bloodthirsty police trained to shoot first and never ask questions.
If you are rich and you do something stupid as a teenager, you will be treated with respect by the police, your parents will hire an expensive attorney who will remind the judge that you could have been the judge’s child if the circumstances were a little different, you will be shown leniency and it is unlikely that you will spend any serious time in prison.
If you are poor and you do something stupid as a teenager, the judge will convict you without consideration. The system will ensure that you remain within or near prison for your entire life. Every job you apply for will ask whether you have been convicted of a crime. You are obliged to say yes, and you will never be given an interview. Without a means to support yourself you will have no option but to return to crime, where the private prison system is more than happy to incarcerate you again and again. More than three out of every four people who have been released from a US state prison end up back there within five years. Compare this with Norway, which has a recidivism rate of 20%.
It needs to be noted that Australia has a shameful prison system as well. Not coincidently it is similar to the US. Both are privatised and both focus primarily on punishment rather than rehabilitation. Of the convicted Australians who are released from prison, 64% will be re-convicted within two years.
Feeding the private prison industry
One of the primary reasons for the “war on drugs” and the “war on terror” is to ensure a steady supply of low-income minorities to the private prisons. The US has 21% of the world’s prison inmates even though it has just 5% of the world’s population. We discussed in a prior post how private prisons have a “lockup quota” which requires that the prison be 70%-100% occupied or else the government pays a penalty to the private prison corporation. This is accomplished by locking up poor minorities, either for possession of a tiny quantity of marijuana, or to await deportation because of “terrorism” (somehow).
And just to make sure that the innocent don’t escape, consider the “Kids for Cash” case, where a judge in Pennsylvania sentenced around 3,000 children to months of incarceration in a run-down facility for insignificant cases, including swearing and in at least one case nothing at all (he was sent there by his father in an attempt to “scare him straight”). In that case, the victim later committed suicide. The judge was found guilty of accepting $2.2 million as a finder’s fee for the construction of the for-profit facility to which his victims were being sent.
To put it in other words, a judge accepted large kickbacks from the private prison industry and then sentenced thousands of children to that facility on trumped up charges. There is a documentary about it called “Kids for Cash”; you can find more information here.
The private prison industry began under Nixon but it rapidly expanded under the Clinton administration in the 1990s with the so-called “crime bill” (formally called the “Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act”, signed into law in 1994), a policy advocated by Hillary Clinton in her now famous “superpredator” remark from 1996. From 1990 to 2000 the number of private prison inmates increased more than tenfold, from just over 8,000 people sentenced to one or more years in 1990 to 86,000 in 2000. After the mass incarceration of African Americans for 20 years the private prisons began escalating the detention of immigrants, with an explosion of immigration detention facilities starting from around 2007. Despite crime rates being consistently lower from year to year, there was a continual increase in the population of prisoners from 107,000 in 2005 to 131,000 in 2014. The “papers please” law, for example, was passed in Arizona in 2010 and it was found that two of the Arizona governor’s top advisors were lobbyists for the private prison corporation CCA.
Meanwhile the number of atrocities committed by the guards within the private prison industry grows, from horrific neglect, rape, beatings, and deaths. Particular cases include prison officers encouraging riots and laughing at the violence that ensued, inmates being beaten and robbed by prison officers, and a man dying of thirst after water had been cut off for a week.
Maintaining the cycle of poverty
Another means by which Americans are locked into a cycle of poverty and crime are the costs that are heaped on the inmates and their families while they are incarcerated. They are subject to labour rules that make them little better than slaves, and the cost of services such as phone calls and snacks are so exorbitant that their families and loved ones need to regularly pay into the prison system. This ensures that everyone involved remains in debt.
Through the inmate population, the private prison industry has easy access to cheap labour with no benefits. The prisoners cannot even refuse to work, as it will land them in disciplinary housing and losing their canteen privileges, along with any credit for good behavior used to reduce their sentence. Prison workers are paid between 12 cents and 40 cents an hour, while the private prisons receive a tax credit for $2,400 for each one. A phone call can cost as much as $14 a minute, so a full-time week’s salary would buy you a 24-second phone call. A bag of chips cost $2.50 (two week’s wage), some coffee will cost you around $8 (over a month’s wage) and you would need to work for three years to save up enough for a 13″ TV ($200). So the private prison not only profits from the incarceration itself, it enjoys a tax break for forcing the prisoner to work, enormous profits from the ludicrously marked-up prices of goods inside, and can then profit from the sale of goods produced by the workers on the market. All the while bleeding dry the inmates and their families, continuing the cycle of poverty and greatly increasing the chances of them returning to crime and placed back in prison again.
Debtor’s prisons are back again
A debtor prison involves the practice of imprisoning people who are unable to pay debt. It was outlawed in the US in 1833, but it is back in today’s America. In this case, the term refers to people being imprisoned because they are unable to pay court fines and fees. If you are too poor to pay the fine, a new warrant will be issued against you, accompanied with additional fines and fees. It is commonplace in the US today, particularly in poor black neighborhoods like in St Louis.
With all of this in consideration, one is forced to ask the question: What is the purpose of prison? Is the goal to reduce crime? If so, then it has failed, as more than 75% of inmates end up back in prison after two years. Is the goal to protect the public from violent offenders? That can’t be correct, as the vast majority of people in prison are non-violent offenders. Is the goal to punish people for committing crimes? If that were correct, then wealthy people would go to prison too, since it can be convincingly argued that they commit the most harmful and most damaging crimes.
Leaving aside the endless bloodlust of a particular segment of the population it seems to me that the purpose is twofold:
(1) To ensure that the private prison industry, and its profits, continue to grow;
(2) To continue to widen the wealth gap by locking the poor and working classes into a cycle of debt and servitude.
The death penalty
Many Australians are either not aware or have forgotten that the US still has the death penalty. This barbaric practice has been outlawed in most civilised countries such as Australia, where the last person was executed by the State in 1967 in and the UK where the last person was executed in 1964. While it seems bizarre to be even having the conversation in 2018, there are a variety of reasons for why the State imposing the death penalty is problematic. Two obvious ones are:
(1) the hypocrisy of the state claiming moral authority over someone who has committed a murder by performing a murder itself;
(2) the fact that an executed person cannot be acquitted is new evidence comes to light revealing a guilty party to be innocent.
As yet another reminder of the seemingly endless bloodlust of the American ruling classes, the US Supreme Court actually abolished capital punishment in the US in 1972. It was then overturned by individual states with their own versions of the death penalty. There are currently 31 states in the US that continue the practice, and the federal government and military have the legal authority to execute prisoners too. In the last 40 years almost 1500 people have been executed in the US, with Texas accommodating more than a third (535) of them.
The vast majority of executions are carried out by lethal injection, but electrocution, the gas chamber and the firing squad are permitted in many states and are still used on occasion. The usage of lethal injection is so controversial that those who manufacture the drugs used for the injections refuse to sell those drugs for the purpose of lethal injection.
And when you are on the wrong side of a moral issue with Big Pharma you should take a serious look at yourself in a mirror!
It should also be noted that around 4% (1 in 25) of those on death row are innocent of the crime for which they have been convicted, 144 people on death row have been exonerated since 1973, and at least 12 people have been found innocent after their execution. This does not deter the states from their bloodlust, and not even the scarcity of the drugs is being seen as a setback. Some states are now experimenting with other chemical cocktails on their condemned, with some terrible consequences.
Using the law as a weapon of coercion
While the war on drugs continues as a convenient excuse to imprison the poor and working classes (more on this in a later posting) and maintain the cycle of poverty, a new weapon of oppression and coercion has been greatly accelerated in the last decade or so. This has been labeled the “war on terrorism”, although really it’s just the latest excuse of the US government to oppress people at home and abroad. The US is not very imaginative in its labels and, of course, war is always first and foremost in the interests of the established political elite.
The US has never provided a formal definition of “terrorism”. This is probably because any description that it could provide it would itself be guily of. “Terrorism” is one of those terms that has no implicit meaning. The Google dictionary definition is “the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims”. That is a perfect description of almost every military incursion by the US since the Second World War and of its domestic policy towards protesters and whistleblowers.
In practice, the US wields the “terrorist” term in the same way that Stalin did: a terrorist is somebody that the established political elite doesn’t like. The label is applied by whim, automatically criminalising the target with no course for legal appeal or redress. Somebody labeled as a terrorist is no longer a person in the eyes of the law, giving the US the authority to kidnap, torture or even assassinate them and their family, even in cases where the target is a US citizen. Such was the case with Anwar Awlaki who was assassinated in 2011 and his 16-year old son and 17-year old cousin were killed by a US drone strike two weeks later. The Obama administration consolidated and expanded the erosion of civil rights that began under Bush, and consequently broke the record for violation of civil rights and law. Most notably are the brutal suppression of left wing protestors and whistleblowers. Obama then turned those unprecedented oppressive powers over to Trump and the Republican Party, which have recently been expanded even further with strong support by the Democrats.
It is said that justice delayed is justice denied. In the US legal system the application of justice depends on the amount of wealth held by the accuser. Everyone else must navigate a landscape of barbarity, exploitation and corruption. Land of the free indeed.