In a way, the justice and corruption domains aren’t separate at all – they’re merely extensions of the same core corruption of American political culture, expressed in different aspects of the government. The public has been slow to recognize it, but the level of corruption in the US has soared in the last 40 years. Corruption has gotten into every piece of government and business in this country – the legislatures and regulatory agencies, most obviously, but also the judicial system.
Congress, in particular, has become a money factory for multi-millionaires and lobbyists, and most members of the House and Senate have lost all interest in the craftsmanship involved in writing good laws that can be equitably enforced. Instead, they stand to make fortunes from allowing a single sentence to be slipped into an opaque, badly written, 2,000 page bill that no one in Congress even pretends to understand, so they have no incentive to care what else is in the bill, or whether its effects on the public and on law enforcement agencies will be anything like what the bill claims as its purpose.
As a result, prosecutors now have sweeping powers under a rapidly increasing number of vague and badly drafted laws. At the top end, enforcement against serious corruption has become almost nonexistent. Prosecutors routinely give rich and well-connected defendants a slap on the wrist for serious offenses, because they know that actually trying those cases will take years, will cost too much, will take too much of their time, and has a very good chance of failing in a publicly embarrassing way because that same thicket of badly drafted statutes allows a judge to rule however he wishes.
At the same time, prosecutors are under pressure to build their reputations as tough guys by running up high conviction records based on plea bargains imposed on poor defendants. They can effectively criminalize the actions of any person they decide to target, and they can coerce guilty pleas from non-rich defendants by threatening 40 or 50 years in prison for “crimes” that either are minor offenses or are arguably not criminal at all. Guilt and innocence have become increasingly irrelevant.
As for judges, they usually aren’t bought with big bags of cash in judge’s chambers at a trial. (That would be illegal.) Instead, they’re bought – quite legally – via huge campaign contributions by large law firms and corporations. Elected judges who rule in favor of their donors (provided they can find sufficient legal loopholes to avoid the appearance of being bought) continue to receive large contributions, and thus stay in office – a very neat system, but also a very corrupt one. Even appointed judges are increasingly beholden to the interests of the party that appoints them and to their largest donors, especially if they aspire to a seat on a higher court.
More important, however, judges are also under pressure from a long and growing backlog of cases. As the law has become more tangled and contradictory, cases have become more complex, trials have become longer and trickier, and judges have become increasingly willing not just to condone but to actively encourage police and prosecutors to use coercive and illegal methods to get guilty pleas and prevent cases from coming to trial. Justice, fairness, and actual guilt become irrelevant, as long as cases get closed and the docket gets cleared.
Other parts of the justice system are equally prone to corruption, often enhanced by poor legislation. For example, sweeping drug laws that allow confiscation of “drug proceeds” without due process or any proof of wrongdoing create strong incentives for police forces to supplement their budgets by arresting people and confiscating their money and belongings on specious charges. This not only results in many innocent people being robbed by the police, it also results in many guilty people being released without prosecution if they agree not to contest the police seizure of their assets. Often the police and prosecutors arguing most strongly for these laws are those in position to gain a direct, personal, financial benefit from them, an obviously corrupt conflict of interest.
The involvement of unions and for-profit prison companies in campaigning for ever-tougher laws and harsher sentencing is another striking category of a blatantly corrupt conflict of interest. Mandatory sentencing rules, like California’s “three strikes” law, that have the effect of greatly increasing employment for police and prison guards, were in many cases passed and maintained largely in response to strong lobbying campaigns by unions representing the police and the prison guards and by corporations and others who stand to profit from having larger and larger percentages of the population in prison.