An Unjust ‘Justice’ System: Victimizing the Innocent

I wrote the first post of what will eventually be part of a long series. The opening salvo was about racism without racists.

The series shall be primarily focused on violence and more generally on the corollaries of injustice, oppression and disadvantage. I’ll also include some other issues for analysis — besides race: region, culture, IQ, poverty, economic inequality, social mobility, pollution/toxins, and other environmental factors. These will be contrasted, when relevant, against genetic explanations.

I plan on being systematic about this series. I will present lots of data and analysis, lots of quotes and citations. I’m going to be thorough. Each post in this series will have a theme, a different angle on the same set of interlinked problems and issues.

However, I’m going to be busy with work for a couple of weeks and won’t be able to make much headway with this project. To offer one more taste of what I’ll be exploring further, let me share a passage from a book I’ve been reading, a book I highly recommend. The book is The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. The section of the book is titled “Bad Deal”. It begins on page 87 in Chapter 2, The Lockdown.

Before I get to the passage itself, let me briefly explain why it is so significant.

One thing the author explains in this book is how little most people know about the system of police enforcement, courts and prisons. The media (news, tv shows and movies) do us a great disservice in not portraying the reality of what actually happens to people when they find themselves caught in a criminal system that seems to care little about whether you are innocent or not.

If you are poor as most are who find themselves targeted by police and prosecutors, there are few people to offer you help and guidance. Poor people certainly can’t afford lawyers and they would be naive to expect to get a lawyer offered them as happens on tv and in the movies. Most likely, you are on your own in a situation you can’t understand and no one will explain it to you. You have to make decisions that will effect your entire life with little information upon which to base that decision. The consequences are immense and, once set into motion, unalterable.

After you get a criminal record, the challenges and difficulties are numerous and diverse.

There are often severe restrictions about where you can live and with whom you can associate. Your drivers license might be revoked which makes very difficult normal life activities: shopping, taking kids to school/daycare, getting to work and keeping a job, and making the regular visits to one’s parole officer (even if you don’t have money to get on a bus because for example you can’t find or keep a job without having a car, missing a parole meeting can send you back to prison). There are expensive penalties and fees that many states demand parolees pay or else, in some cases, returning to prison.

However, at the same time it can be very hard to find a job for few employers want to hire ex-cons even if you were only convicted of a minor offense such as possessing a small amount of marijuana, and yet some states require employment as a requisite of parole. If you’re lucky to find a job, your paychecks can be garnished, sometimes almost entirely or even entirely. Furthermore, you are no longer eligible for government assistance and public housing, and so there is nothing to stop or discourage a downward economic spiral (quite the opposite actually). Under such conditions, it is easy to end up unemployed which often leads you to losing your housing and, if you become homeless, it could lead you to losing custody of your children (the most important part of many people’s live, often the one thing keeping the a struggling person from giving up entirely).

To rub salt into your wound, you may also permanently lose your right to vote and serve on juries. You will be treated like a second-class citizen. None of this would motivate and help you to rejoin normal society again. It is as if the entire world is against you. The punishment never ends. It doesn’t matter if you are innocent or not. It doesn’t matter if your crime was minor or victimless. Once assigned the status of a criminal, you are stigmatized for life. You become a part of the underclass or maybe even the permanent undercaste. Basically, your existence becomes a living hell.

Keep in mind also that most of these targeted poor people are poor minorities, mostly poor blacks. Numerous studies have shown that it is a racially biased system at every single step of the way, from policing to imprisonment. This is even worse when one considers, as the author does, how many innocent people become victimized by the very system that is supposed to protect victims. This is how families and entire communities are destroyed, many poor black communities with the vast of their male black populations (and much of their female black population as well) tangled up in the justice system or else in the school-to-prison pipeline.

To see some nice graphs, check out a previous post of mine: Prison Insanity. As violent crime has sharply decreased, the prison population has sharply increased. More specifically, even as violent crime has decreased among blacks and even though whites use and carry drugs more, the racially prejudiced War on Drugs has caused the black prison population to increase. That is an important point as the justification for imprisoning so many blacks is because of violent crime.

Without further ado, the following is the passage in question (key points in bold).

* * * *

Almost no one ever goes to trial. Nearly all criminal cases are resolved through plea bargaining— a guilty plea by the defendant in exchange for some form of leniency by the prosecutor. Though it is not widely known, the prosecutor is the most powerful law enforcement official in the criminal justice system. One might think that judges are the most powerful, or even the police, but in reality the prosecutor holds the cards. It is the prosecutor, far more than any other criminal justice official, who holds the keys to the jailhouse door.

After the police arrest someone, the prosecutor is in charge. Few rules constrain the exercise of his or her discretion. The prosecutor is free to dismiss a case for any reason or no reason at all. The prosecutor is also free to file more charges against a defendant than can realistically be proven in court, so long as probable cause arguably exists— a practice known as overcharging.

The practice of encouraging defendants to plead guilty to crimes, rather than affording them the benefit of a full trial, has always carried its risks and downsides. Never before in our history, though, have such an extraordinary number of people felt compelled to plead guilty, even if they are innocent, simply because the punishment for the minor, nonviolent offense with which they have been charged is so unbelievably severe. When prosecutors offer “only” three years in prison when the penalties defendants could receive if they took their case to trial would be five, ten, or twenty years— or life imprisonment— only extremely courageous (or foolish) defendents turn the offer down.

The pressure to plead guilty to crimes has increased exponentially since the advent of the War on Drugs. In 1986, Congress passed The Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which established extremely long mandatory minimum prison terms for low-level drug dealing and possession of crack cocaine. The typical mandatory sentence for a first-time drug offense in federal court is five or ten years. By contrast, in other developed countries around the world, a first-time drug offense would merit no more than six months in jail, if jail time is imposed at all. 70 State legislatures were eager to jump on the “get tough” bandwagon, passing harsh drug laws, as well as “three strikes ” laws mandating a life sentence for those convicted of any third offense. These mandatory minimum statutory schemes have transferred an enormous amount of power from judges to prosecutors . Now, simply by charging someone with an offense carrying a mandatory sentence of ten to fifteen years or life, prosecutors are able to force people to plead guilty rather than risk a decade or more in prison. Prosecutors admit that they routinely charge people with crimes for which they technically have probable cause but which they seriously doubt they could ever win in court. 71 They “load up” defendants with charges that carry extremely harsh sentences in order to force them to plead guilty to lesser offenses and— here’s the kicker— to obtain testimony for a related case. Harsh sentencing laws encourage people to snitch.

The number of snitches in drug cases has soared in recent years, partly because the government has tempted people to “cooperate” with law enforcement by offering cash, putting them “on payroll,” and promising cuts of seized drug assets, but also because ratting out co-defendants, friends, family, or acquaintances is often the only way to avoid a lengthy mandatory minimum sentence. 72 In fact , under the federal sentencing guidelines, providing “substantial assistance” is often the only way defendants can hope to obtain a sentence below the mandatory minimum. The “assistance” provided by snitches is notoriously unreliable, as studies have documented countless informants who have fabricated stories about drug-related and other criminal activity in exchange for money or leniency in their pending criminal cases. 73 While such conduct is deplorable, it is not difficult to understand. Who among us would not be tempted to lie if it was the only way to avoid a forty-year sentence for a minor drug crime?

The pressure to plea-bargain and thereby “convict yourself” in exchange for some kind of leniency is not an accidental by-product of the mandatory-sentencing regime. The U.S. Sentencing Commission itself has noted that “the value of a mandatory minimum sentence lies not in its imposition, but in its value as a bargaining chip to be given away in return for the resource-saving plea from the defendant to a more leniently sanctioned charge.” Describing severe mandatory sentences as a bargaining chip is a major understatement, given its potential for extracting guilty pleas from people who are innocent of any crime.

It is impossible to know for certain how many innocent drug defendants convict themselves every year by accepting a plea bargain out of fear of mandatory sentences, or how many are convicted due to lying informants and paid witnesses, but reliable estimates of the number of innocent people currently in prison tend to range from 2 percent to 5 percent. 74 While those numbers may sound small (and probably are underestimates), they translate into thousands of innocent people who are locked up, some of whom will die in prison. In fact, if only 1 percent of America’s prisoners are actually innocent of the crimes for which they have been convicted, that would mean tens of thousands of innocent people are currently languishing behind bars in the United States.

The real point here, however, is not that innocent people are locked up. That has been true since penitentiaries first opened in America. The critical point is that thousands of people are swept into the criminal justice system every year pursuant to the drug war without much regard for their guilt or innocence. The police are allowed by the courts to conduct fishing expeditions for drugs on streets and freeways based on nothing more than a hunch. Homes may be searched for drugs based on a tip from an unreliable, confidential informant who is trading the information for money or to escape prison time. And once swept inside the system, people are often denied attorneys or meaningful representation and pressured into plea bargains by the threat of unbelievably harsh sentences— sentences for minor drug crimes that are higher than many countries impose on convicted murderers. This is the way the roundup works, and it works this way in virtually every major city in the United States.

70 Mauer, Race to Incarcerate, 35- 37.
71 See Angela J. Davis, Arbitrary Justice: The Power of the American Prosecutor (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 31-33.
72 See Alexandra Natapoff, “Snitching: The Institutional and Communal Consequences,” University of Cincinnati Law Review 645 (2004); and Emily Jane Dodds, “I’ll Make You a Deal: How Repeat Informants Are Corrupting the Criminal Justice System and What to Do About It,” William and Mary Law Review 50 (2008): 1063.
73 See “Riverside Drug Cases Under Review Over Use of Secret Informant,” Associated Press, Aug. 20, 2004; Ruben Narvette Jr., “Blame Stretches Far and Wide in Drug Scandal,” Dallas Morning News, Nov. 14, 2003; Rob Warden, How Snitch Testimony Sent Randy Steidl and Other Innocent Americans to Death Row (Chicago: Northwestern University School of Law, Center for Wrongful Convictions, 2004- 5); “The Informant Trap,” National Law Journal, Mar. 6, 1995; Steven Mills and Ken Armstrong, “The Jailhouse Informant,” Chicago Tribune, Nov. 16, 1999; and Ted Rohrlich and Robert Stewart, “Jailhouse Snitches: Trading Lies for Freedom,” Los Angeles Times, Apr. 16, 1989.
74 See Adam Liptak, “Consensus on Counting the Innocent: We Can’t,” New York Times, Mar. 25, 2008; and Adam Liptak, “Study Suspects Thousands of False Confessions,” New York Times, Apr. 19, 2004.