Keystone Essay – Justice, Police, and the Prison System
Fairness, an equal shake, blind justice, jury of peers, rule of law…Amendments IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, and XIV…. these are all ubiquitous and universally applauded features of American life. Like blind lady justice they are ubiquitous in every area of our culture. This system of justice makes us superior to most other countries in the world.
This is the delusion of the American justice system.
The reality is that over 98% of Federal prosecutions are plea bargained before going to trial because who has the financial resources to fight the government. Over 400,000 people are locked up in county and local jails on bail, sometimes for months even years, before ever appearing in court. Bail as a system of incarceration. In most states over 90% of criminal cases end in plea bargains because despite the constitutional right to an attorney this system has never worked and people are represented by poorly paid attorneys who might only meet their clients at the judicial proceeding. Prosecutors thus have enormous leverage in an unsupervised situation to exact whatever penalty fits their needs.
Our police are portrayed to us in grade school as our trusted guardians and helpers. They are our bulwark against crime and chaos.
This is the delusion of American police.
If you are poor or worse, black, brown, or otherwise not American, the police are a feared presence, potentially lethal in almost any encounter at any time. In recent years ubiquitous videos from smart phones have brought this to the attention of even white people.
Our prison system is less of a delusion because it reflects the strain of Old Testament fundamentalism that Protestantism brought to this country’s early ruling elite. US Prisons are about punishment, pain, and retribution. Almost no thought is given to how a person will live after the leave prison.
A system of lifelong punishment
Punishment does not end when a term is served. We have devised a system of lifelong punishment. First there are the parole and probation systems that hang over ex-prisoners with a web of rules and controls. These frequently result in re-incarceration for offenders. Then we have formal and informal rules of employment that prevent those freed from getting jobs. Compounding this are laws and practices that prevent ex-prisoners from accessing public housing, education, and even food stamps. Finally in most states ex-prisoners are stripped of their right to vote and serve on juries.
Topics here include:
- bail as a form of unconstitutional enrichment of local government through the oppression of poor people – incarceration before guilt.
- the utter failure of the system of legal representation guaranteed by the Constitution
- the continuation of the racist regime of post-Civil War oppression of African Americans through the police and prison system
- the mal-treatment of mentally ill persons abandoned by our medical system.
- America’s longest war Nixon’s War on Drugs as continued by every President since.
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