Friday, January 30, 2009

Two-Tiered Justice System

Glenn Greenwald has a wonderful article over at Salon. In it, he very forcefully describes the terrible dichotomy inherent in the American justice system in which high-level politicians are pardoned while low-level criminals are severely punished.
Aside from the intrinsic dangers and injustices of arguing for immunity for high-level government officials who commit felonies (such as illegal eavesdropping, obstruction of justice, torture and other war crimes), it's the total selectivity of the rationale underlying that case which makes it so corrupt. Defenders of Bush officials sing in unison: We shouldn't get caught up in the past. We shouldn't be driven by vengeance and retribution. We shouldn't punish people whose motives in committing crimes weren't really that bad.

I actually hadn't heard that song from conservatives. What I've heard is a complete denial of the charges, even those President Bush and Vice-President Cheney admitted to themselves. In any case, the point of Greenwald's article is made with a number of examples of the overly severe treatment of petty criminals, as well as these incredible prison statistics.
Currently in the U.S., close to 7,000 people are serving sentences of 25 years to life under our merciless "three-strikes-and-out" laws -- which the Supreme Court upheld as constitutional in a 5-4 ruling -- including half for nonviolent offenses and many for petty theft.

As I've noted many times before, the United States imprisons more of its population than any other country on the planet, and most astoundingly, we account for less than 5% of the world's population yet close to 25% of the world's prisoners are located in American prisons.

Often I seem to hear that we're too soft on criminals. Does anyone think that in the light of these stats? Does anyone think we need to lock more people up than we do now?

Here's my three-part plan:

1. White collar criminals get out immediately, but it's not a get-out-of-jail-free card. They'd have to pay heavy fines and submit to severe supervision.

2. Then, we remove all the alcoholics and drug addicts from prisons and give them the mental health care they need.

3. After that we release the 25% least dangerous prisoners, right across the board, under the same conditions as the white collar guys.

With all the savings generated we could afford the proper upkeep of the present facilities including the mental hospitals and make the necessary increases in the probation departments.

As far as the former administration goes, I believe they should answer for what they've done. They should be investigated and if found appropriate, tried for their crimes. Perhaps under my system outlined above, they would fall into the white-collar group, but they should pay for their crimes like everyone else.

What's your opinion? Does this sound like crazy liberal talk? Or do some of my ideas make sense to you?

Please leave a comment.


  1. hardly crazy talk, mike, although the devil's in the details.

    i like the notion of reducing the number of prisoners, but i'd prefer it be done on a case-by-case basis, not wholesale across-the-board amnesties. we can use across-the-board rules for which individual cases to look into, but i still want some human being to make a go or no-go decision on each prisoner to let out.

    and with the economy the way it is, i think you'll understand i'm not too favorable towards letting out white-collar criminals just because they're white-collar criminals. crimes committed mostly on paper can still very thoroughly ruin countless lives, and we shouldn't forget that or treat it lightly.

    addiction treatment instead of incarceration for folks whose crimes were largely or wholly caused by inebriation sounds good, so long as those crimes didn't result in loss of life. drunken driver totaled his own car, get him into whatever treatment to sober him up, sure. drunken driver totaled his own car and decapitated two other folks in the process --- sober him up, yes, but maybe after he's served his term for manslaughter.

    and as for non-violent drug offenders, i.e. the countless folks who did nothing else wrong but smoke some pot? yeah, leniency very much called for, i agree with that angle. really, end the "war on drugs" and half our incarceration problem just goes away right there.

  2. Mike,

    How about rating the impact on others instead of just violent or not?

    If a person is violent, has repeated history of break ins, etc; there is a high impact on others.

    If a person bilked people out of their life savings/retirement funds; there is a high impact on others.

    If a person is smoking weed in their home, low impact.

    If a person smoked weed and then got in an accident that hurt others, higher impact.

    That allows the "victimless" crimes to be punished appropriately while confining the ones who are hurting society.

  3. All marijuana convictions immediately overturned... free the weed!

    addiction treatment instead of incarceration for folks whose crimes were largely or wholly caused by inebriation sounds good, so long as those crimes didn't result in loss of life.

    Agree with this.

    PS: I dedicated today's post to you, Mike! :P I even named it after you--with old-school music BY REQUEST!

  4. 1. No. A white collar criminal is often as much or more of a burden to society as a street thug.

    2. Close. Eliminate drug laws. If an addict is stealing to feed his habit, concentrate on the stealing. Tax revenue from drug sales should go largely to treatment, if there are programs with a demonstrated success rate. Police will have more time to work on more serious crime.

    3. Prisoners aren't there just because they are dangerous, but also as a punishment, to deter future crime by example.

  5. Bob and Sevesteen, I think you're probably right. The impact on victims could be considered instead of just whether it was violent or white-collar. But, using that as the criterion, would you agree to letting a large percentage out?

    And about the old deterrence theory, how's that working do you think?

  6. Mike,

    Deterrence doesn't work when people know they will be charged with one crime, allowed to plea down to a very minor crime and serve a minimal amount of time; even when they have committed multiple or many multiple crimes.

    I think the plea bargaining system has to be removed almost completely. Prosecutors, in my opinion, are using it to jack up their conviction rates not to keep bad guys in jail for the right amount of time.

    Deterrence also doesn't work when the culture outside prizes people who do jail time. It needs to be something of a stigma to go to jail.

    The culture outside has to change prior to or with the revisions to the prison system. Address those concerns in a post. Talk about how welfare won't allow a father to live with the mother of his child without her loosing benefits. Talk about how welfare and generations of people on welfare are breaking down the family structure; especially the impact on boys.

    Talk about the rise of gangs to replace those father figures, FBI reports show gangs are responsible for approximately 80% of all crimes.

    No one solution is going to solve all the problems. Have to address the root cause of crime when you are talking about the consequences of crime.

  7. I agree with Bob S.--Plea bargains are a big part of the problem.

    There needs to be an advantage for a guilty person to plead guilty, but this needs to be limited, so it can't be used as a club by prosecutors.

    Prosecutors abuse the current system by charging with the worst crime remotely plausible, to force a plea bargain. Over-charging could be controlled with limits on the difference between the charge and sentence. I've seen cases where it was cheaper to accept a plea bargain than it would have been to win. Our system means you need a lawyer even if you plan to plead guilty.

    England has some fairly good ideas here--If you win, the government pays your lawyer. Rather than lesser charges, the charge remains the same, but there is a reduction in sentence for a guilty plea, and the earlier the plea the lower the sentence.