Following up on the fun inequality theme of The Broken Ladder, I read Glenn Greenwald’s “With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law is Used to destroyed Equality and Protect the Powerful.”
In a nutshell, Greenwald describes how, starting with the pardon of Richard Nixon, our nation’s Presidents, high-ranking officials and other wealthy and powerful people have continued to commit crimes and been shielded from any prosecution whatsoever (often by fellow politicians) while simultaneously increasing the tough-on-crime mentality that keeps more Americans in prison, per capita and as a percentage of population, than any other country in the world, many for low-level nonviolent crimes.
The disparity of justice is best highlighted by two anecdotes.
In one, a hedge fund manager at Morgan Stanley, Martin Joel Erzinger, hit a bicyclist from behind and sped away, leaving the bicyclist with “spinal cord injuries, bleeding from his brain and damage to his knee and scapula.” Though a hit-and-run is a felony in Colorado, Erzinger was only charged with a misdemeanor, which carries no jail time. The district attorney’s explanation: “Felony convictions have some pretty serious job implications for someone in Mr. Erzinger’s profession.”
In 2007, a couple threw a birthday party for their 16-year old son and his friends of the same age. The couple provided beer and wine but collected keys from all guests to ensure they couldn’t drive. None of the teens left the party and nobody was injured but a neighbor called the police and reported underage drinking. Both members of the couple were convicted of nine misdemeanor counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor (one count for each minor who drank at the party) and were each sentenced to eight years in prison. On appeal, the sentences were reduced to 27 months, and the Virginia Supreme Court refused to hear the case. (As a Virginian, this is extra sad for me but not unexpected).
There was no mention of the jobs of the Virginia couple. No one considered whether their lives would be ruined by the prison sentences. It’s clear that their “crime” was not nearly as bad as Erzinger. And yet Erzinger gets away with no jail time.
There’s a completely different justice system for the wealthy than for the regular people. This is why Al Franken, who was caught on camera groping a woman without her consent, remains in office with the support of many women but if he were a less powerful person, would be spending years in jail.
For the non-wealthy, the scope of criminal law has expanded rapidly and in 2000, police arrested more than 2 million individuals for “consensual” or “victimless” crimes as curfew violations, prostitution, gambling, drug possession, vagrancy and public drunkenness. American prison sentences are vastly harsher and longer than in any other country to which the U.S. would ordinarily be compared. Public defenders are vastly overworked, understaffed and underpaid in order to be able to offer a meaningful defense. And the prison lobby has become a formidable force in keeping prisons occupied with more new prisoners and repeat offenders.
This, of course, assumes you ever get a trial, which is unlikely for those detained at Guantanamo Bay, which is still open despite Obama’s promises to close it.
Thus, in Obama’s multitiered justice system, only certain detainees are entitled to real trials: namely, those whom the government is sure it can convict. Others, for whom conviction is less certain, will be accorded fewer rights and tried by military commission. And those whom the government believes it can’t convict in either forum will simply be held indefinitely with no charges . . .
Greenwald posits that the reason this justice system is left standing is that most citizens don’t believe it will affect them. I think that’s a pretty pessimistic way to look at the issue. I think Americans just don’t really understand the extent of the multi-tiered justice system or don’t think they can change it. I’m not sure about the latter but now you know something about the former.
Americans – and non-Americans – do you think you will ever be entangled in this unjust justice system?