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Monday, 25 August 2014 07:02

The US Incarceration System Ruins the Lives of the Poor and Favors the Wealthy

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(Photo: <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/marineperez/4698707308/in/photolist-8ad6YY-8Aus3-5zCkcN-rpJN4-bjoHVX-62R4Ev-g9giVA-6AVJ7p-kxZy8-6qoBmK-byTHXc-8AvSm-aekaK4-de3U-9icSX1-6qsN9C-5NrRia-7h76DU-kBxd2-gjmKrq-7DMweA-2HnKKx-iUKE8K-gYYzoZ-gLRWAA-9Xx2Cj-5jJ1TB-8YW9eM-imHXim-gF4xfF-7PBNhi-4XyVDt-enjZzB-6ypZ8K-a5idwo-2wDtw2-5xtiGh-3KPTQU-nk9MR-9YzSKW-6Qt12d-gF3cAU-5NvYAU-4v5WM-gF3RKg-fi57cm-fkQond-ayMkd1-9Yx1Jn-85HBZT" target="_blank">  miss_millions / Flickr</a>)(Photo: miss_millions / Flickr)


“If you had enough money, you could hardly commit crimes at all. You just perpetrated amusing little peccadilloes.”
- Terry Pratchett

Submitted for your consideration: one Kate Meckler, a top New York City real estate broker, heiress to a tech CEO, and owner of a mansion in Southampton. Meckler had a bit of an oops back in April, and somehow managed to shoplift some $1,644 worth of clothing from Saks Fifth Avenue. As part of her plea deal, her sentence was set as five days of community service. Hooray for the criminal justice system!

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Let’s engage in a brief thought experiment. Imagine that Meckler were not a real estate broker and scion of wealth and privilege. Imagine that she were, instead, a single mother working two minimum wage jobs. Of course, she probably wouldn’t have been wandering about Saks Fifth Avenue, but let’s pretend that she had been, and managed to be caught with $1,644 of shoplifted merchandise. That constitutes a class E felony, with penalties including imprisonment for up to four years. Show of hands: how many of you think this hypothetical version of Meckler would have gotten off with five days of community service?

Thought so.

But there’s no need to conduct thought experiments. We can have a look at things out there in the real world where, thanks to mandatory sentencing laws, thousands of people are serving sentences up to and including life without parole for offenses less than that of Meckler. Of course, they’re all “career criminals,” bad people who have led a life of crime, and need to be removed from our streets. Certainly none of them could ever hope to offer the vital contributions to society that a top real estate broker might.

I’m going to make a wild assumption here: those people serving lengthy sentences for minor crimes? I just bet that none of them were independently wealthy. It’s well established that racial disparities in sentencing exist in our country, at least partially due to the never-ending idiocy of the war on drugs. But it is also worth considering that, within the criminal justice system, the presence or absence of wealth may be just as pernicious an influence as is race. The equation isn’t terribly complicated: more money equals better legal representation equals alcohol rehab for causing the deaths of four people.

But sentencing disparities aren’t the only way in which the poor are at a disadvantage in the court system. Court fees are rising and defendants are liable for an increasing number of them. Can’t pay for your public defender? How terrible. Go directly to jail. Enjoy your stay. And also? You’re on the hook for room and board while you’re there. Or let’s talk about privatized probation, which has all the awesome and predatory features of payday loan programs, with the bonus of threatened jail time for those who default. One woman started out owing a few hundred dollars in fines for driving without a license. She ended up owing over four thousand, spending time in jail, and almost losing her home. These stories are repeated hundreds, thousands of times across the country.

In every way, the criminal justice system is weighted to favor the wealthy. While someone of means might slide through the system and experience some minor inconvenience, the less fortunate will go through a life-destroying ordeal. This all strikes me as somewhat less than fair. Justice, according to the popular picture, is allegedly blind. Seems that someone may have removed that blindfold. We may not yet be looking at a return of Victorian-era workhouses, but we’re certainly on that trajectory. And the road to that grim end is paved with ruined lives and families ground ever further into poverty.

But there is something else at work here, something even more troubling. Worse than the nasty direction we’re headed is the very unpleasant implication lying behind these disparities in treatment: the wealthy are simply more important and more useful to society. We can’t very well go around tossing them into jail for a bit of shoplifting. Or drunk driving. Or mild pedophilia. They contribute. The poor? Eh. What have they ever done for this country? The poor commit crimes, and must be punished. The wealthy make mistake or two, and deserve our understanding and support.

There is a steady chittering from those that chitter about such things. “Class warfare! Class warfare!” they yell, and this seems to be something that they feel to be a new and grave threat to those who occupy well deserved positions of privilege. But here’s the dirty little secret: the class war has been raging for a long, long time. The side that complains the loudest about it is the side that is waging it. And the side that is waging it has our criminal justice system on its side. And it is inflicting casualties.

I submit that it is time to fight back.