The source of the rot

One source of the rot in our justice system is a system of laws, customs, police practices and attitudes, and judicial procedures that is in large part a legacy of America’s racial history, and which results in a distinctly class- and race-biased application of justice:  the poor, and especially poor minorities, suffer the attention of the police far out of proportion to middle- and upper-class Americans.  One clear effect of this has been to exacerbate poverty and racial and class divisions, which in turn helps perpetuate high levels of crime.  And it is no coincidence that it has also been effective at creating high profits and high employment for the prison industry, which has lobbied relentlessly for ever-tougher laws and sentences.

This huge profit boom is the second source of rot in the system, and can be traced back to more than just the prison industry:  all law enforcement agencies benefit (in increased job security and pay/benefits) from increasingly complex criminal codes.  This isn’t to say that they’re trying to corrupt the system – rather, there’s just been an insistent push over the last half-century by law-enforcement organizations (and, of course, the prison industry in particular) to increase the need for their services.  It’s never presented this way, of course, but politicians who can be labeled as “soft on crime” have been swiftly replaced by staunch “law and order” candidates supported, more often than not, by ads featuring uniformed police officers and funded by prison lobbies and law-enforcement groups, leading to a progressively hardened legal attitude towards all sorts of crimes.

The effects of this hardening vary by jurisdiction, but four examples of it have been the huge rise in:

  • Statutes criminalizing the same behavior in different ways, so a person can be charged with many different crimes as a result of a single action
  • Crimes with broad, vague definitions
  • Statutes that define “intent” by the result and forbid juries to consider the defendant’s real intent or state of mind
  • Crimes with harsh mandatory minimum sentences

Then add to that the creation in some states of “three strikes” laws.  These and other measures have caused punishments to get harsher and harsher, and have caused more and more people to be caught up in the system; the cumulative impacts on the US of this “ratchet effect,” in combination with all of the other problems we’ve been dealing with, have been devastating.  The US has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, with more than 2.2 million people in prison, and approximately 7 million people behind bars, on probation, or on parole.  We spend vast sums on police, prisons, and courts (although we’re actually placing so much stress on our courts that even with the extra funding, they can’t deal with the workload) and yet we still have a higher crime rate than other rich nations and a higher crime rate, particularly in cities outside the old south, than we had in the 1950s, when we spent much less.  The entire justice system is failing us, and everything else in our nation suffers for it.


Next page:  The war on drugs

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