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Thursday, April 01, 2010

ORDINARY INJUSTICE
Even Beyond Guantanamo, Rendition, and Torture, the US Criminal (In)Justice System Is a National Disgrace
James S. Henry

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CRIMAMERICACHART (click on graph to expand)

In 1840, Tocqueville, otherwise usually an astute observer of American society, proclaimed that “there is no 8968 country where criminal justice is administered with more kindness than in the US.” 

In the modern-day  “Law and Order”/ Perry Mason made-for-TV  version of this story, the US is still viewed by many as having,  in author Amy Bachs words,  “the world’s finest criminal justice system.”

Certainly this is the preferred self-image when, as it is wont to do, the US criticizes the quality of criminal justice in other countries.

 In this sanguine view, US prosecutors, police, investigators, and judges leave no stones unturned to see that crimes are punished, justice is done, and the  US Constitution is respected.

Juries take their independence seriously and fight tooth and claw for the truth;  parole officers and prison wardens are all deeply committed to “correction.”

Public defenders are not only thoroughly informed about  the latest nuances of criminal law,  but also work tirelessly to insure that each and every defendant has his day in court.  

MainAmy_BachRachel_Gracie Fortunately, Ms. Bach, a young New York attorney and law professor,  has provided a compelling, well-researched antidote to this conventional fairy tale. 

Her new book, the product of seven years of first-hand research in the bowels of the state and local court systems of New York, George, Mississippi, and Chicago, focuses on “ordinary injustice -- the routine failure of judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys as a community  to deliver on the Constitution’s basic promises.

EXCEPTIONS?

Tocqueville was not alone in his naivete'. Initially, the sheer amount of attention given to criminal justice in the US Constitution as well as state constitutions led many observers to  expect that the US  really might be distinctive.

StoryIndeed, criminal rights are the subject of Article I’s explicit reiteration of habeas corpus, plus four  of the first ten amendments (known  collectively as the “Bill of Rights”), and their extension to states and non-citizens by the XIV th  Amendment.

Of  course legal scholars have long been aware of serious gaps between theory and practice  with respect to such rights.  But the gaps have usually been regarded as exceptions. 

Many of the exceptions have occurred in times of war or perceived security  threats  – for example, the Sedition Acts of 1798 and 1918, the World War II internment of Japanese-Americans, the frequent persecution of labor unions, civil rights workers,  and Left wing dissidents from the 1880s right up through the 1970s,  the 2001 Patriot Act, the NSA's illegal spying program, and the systematic mistreatment of "enemy combatants" at Guantanamo and elsewhere. 

Other exceptions have involved the application of "Jim Crow justice” to native Americans, Afro-Americans, and other minorities.

Overall,  however,  most legal scholars have treated these episodes as abnormal deviations. In the long run,  the system as a whole is supposedly always improving,  always trying to do the right thing. 

On this theory,  the US Constitution and the courts that interpret it  are a kind of homeostatic machine, with built-in stabilizers that eventually prevent any serious rights violations from becoming permanent.

THE REALITY: FAST-FOOD JUSTICE

Ccritics on the Left have long maintained that in practice, no such automatic stabilizers  exist. From this perspective,  securing human rights is not ever accomplished once and for all, but  requires a constant, repetitive struggle.

It is also conceivable that "path dependency" and "feedback loops" in the legal system may  be destabilizing. The erosion of rights in one period may increase the chance that rights continue to erode later on.

Critics of the conventional view have also argued that rich people and poor people – including the indigent defendants who now account for about 70 to 90 percent of all felony cases –  essentially confront two very different US criminal justice systems,  especially in state and local courts. 

Only a tiny fraction of mainly affluent criminal defendants ever receive   full-blown Perry Mason/ Alan Derschowitz-type adversarial trials -- and even there, as Harvey Silverglate's recent book emphasizes, even the affluent still face the hazards of vague statutes and prosecutorial zeal. 

Meanwhile, 90 percent of criminal defendants soon learn the hard way that their nominal "rights"  consist of one brief collect call from a jail cell, followed by a tango with an alliance of police, prosecutors, and public defenders whose shared objective is to talk them into pleading guilty.

As Clarence Darrow said in his 1902 address to the inmates at the Cook County Jail, “First and foremost, people are sent to jail because they are poor.” And as the American Bar Association  -- not usually aligned with wild-eyed radicals -- reiterated in 2004, “The indigent defense system in the US remains in a state of crisis.”

Gat_0000_0001_0_img0083  This pervasive “fast food”/ assembly-line plea bargain system  is hardly new, although it has recently become a much greater problem than ever before because of soaring rates of incarceration in the US, as we'll see below. 

DETAILS FROM THE FRONT

 The special merit of Ms. Bach’s book  is that she takes such pat generalizations  about “ordinary injustice” down from the shelf  and brings them to life with a series of extraordinary case studies.

In doing so, she tackles one of the main challenges that confronts any investigator who seeks to understand how the criminal justice system really works. This is the fact that “ordinary injustice,” while pervasive,  is very hard to observe without detailed, painstaking field work.

 As Ms. Bach emphasizes,  this lack of transparency also prevents the public from being able to tell  just what they are getting for the hundreds of billions of  taxes  spent on the criminal justice system --  as well as  how the courts are doing with respect to delivering what is supposed to be their key product – justice. 

 One immediate benefit of Ms. Bach's field work is a rich trove of amazing real world stories about how the system actually works.

 ✔   For example,  in her book we meet a Troy New York city judge who routinely fails to inform defendants in his court Blindjustice of their rights to counsel, imposes $50,000 bails for $27 thefts and $25,000 bails for loitering, and enters guilty pleas for defendants without even bothering to tell them.  

 ✔  We meet a Georgia public defender who runs a “meet’ em, greet’em, and plead ‘em”  shop that delivers just 4 trials in 1500 cases, with guilty pleas entered in more than half of these cases without any lawyer present or any witnesses interviewed. 

 ✔  We meet Mississippi prosecutors who are so concerned about their win/loss records and reelections  that they simply “disappear” all the harder-to-prosecute cases from their files. 

  We meet a Chicago prosecutor who allows two iinnocent young people to sit in jail for 19 years before he finally works up the gumption to examine the relevant DNA evidence. This new evidence not only cleared them, but it also helped to disclose a much larger  police conspiracy.

  Ms. Bach also reminds us of the unbelievable 2001 case before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals (Texas)  where the court labored hard to overrule a lower court decision that would have permitted a defendant on trial for his life to receive the death sentence, despite the fact that his attorney had been fast asleep through much of the trial.  

PATTERNS

Amy Bach’s  book is more than just a series of such horror stories, however.  By doing  painstaking legal anthropology in multiple locations, she's been able to go beyond the limits of the typical one-off journalistic expose about the courts. (See, for example,  A, B, and C.) 

Bach's focus is on identifying recurrent patterns of misbehavior. These patterns were unfortunately  not “exceptional” at all,  but routine and widespread.

Prison Most important, her research underscores the fact that  ordinary injustice is not just due to isolated “bad apples.”  There is a system at work here.  Indeed, injustice thrives on a culture of tolerance for illegal practices  cultivated in whole communities of lawyers, judges, and police over many years.  This culture, and the “fast food”  plea bargaining  that  it facilitates,  are at the root of all her cases. 

Unfortunately Ms. Bach offers no real solutions to the problems that she has described so well. She ends up leaning rather heavily on a fond hope that “new metrics”  will be developed to measure how well individual courts actually deliver “justice” -- sort of the legal equivalent of "No Child Left Behind."  

There may be something to this. But in my experience,  metrics, whether in education or judicial policy,  are the last refuge of the policy wonk.  They will  undoubtedly be a  long time coming. This is  partly because of budget constraints. But  it is also because if the metrics are really worth a damn, they will  provoke stiff resistance from the  very same bureaucratic interests that Ms. Bach had to overcome  in her own research. 

Pending the dawn of this brave new world of  metrics,  I suspect that we will just have to depend on a handful of dedicated lawyers,  investigative journalists, and creative legal scholars like Ms. Bach to keep an eye on the courts,  root out what’s really going on,  and insist that all of the rights we have on paper and take for granted are  still around when we really need them.

ROOT CAUSES

So where does “ordinary injustice” come from, and what can we do about it?  Fundamentally, as noted, the kind of ordinary injustice described by Ms. Bach basically exists because of the “fast food” plea bargaining system. But as she also recognizes,  it would be a waste of time to outlaw this directly. This is  because the plea bargaining treadmill basically derives from the unsuccessful attempt to reconcile several deeply-inconsistent public demands. 

First,   9/11, the war on terror and GWB notwithstanding, most Americans still fundamentally believe in freedom.  Most of us still want to preserve the Bill of Rights --  at least on paper. 

Second,  we all want to save money – especially in these times.  Implementing the full-blown version of theCrowdedPrisons adversarial trials in  every case would be very costly. While taxpayers value human rights, they’re not all frothing to pay a whole lot for them. This is partly just because at any given point in time   their value is a little abstract --  like health insurance before you become ill.

Of course the truth is that the  “fast food” system is anything but cheap. The entire  system –  courts, prisons and police – now costs US taxpayers over $250 billion a year.  That figure has been growing like Topsy – it  is now at least three times the 1990 level.

Over  80 percent  of these costs are born by the hard-pressed state and local governments.  Most of the funds are digested by police and prisons;  courts only account for about one fifth.  Even so, it is far from clear that ordinary  taxpayers  – most of whom never expect to see the inside of a criminal court or jailhouse  themselves --  would be willing to pay anything more to help defend the poor  or curb ordinary injustice. 

Third, what US taxpayers do care about, at least until now,  is “fighting crime,” especially drug-related and lower-level  street crime. Ever since the 1970s, these have been the fastest growing contributors to system-wide criminal justice costs.

For many  taxpayers, under the influence of thirty  years of campaign propaganda from  the “war on drugs” industry and “tough-on-street crime” politicians, this has usually been reduced to  “lock ‘em up  and throw away the key, as fast as possible.” 

The result is that today, in the US, the number of inmates in our local jails and state and federal prisons is at an all-time high: over 2.3 million, 6.8 times the number in 1974.

This means the US has the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world. It is  754 per 100,000, higher than Russia (610), Cuba (531), Iran (223), and China (119),  let alone developed countries like the UK (152), Canada (116), France (96), Germany (88), and Japan (63).


  Indeed, southern states like Louisiana (1138), Georgia (1021), Texas (976),  Mississippi (955), Oklahoma (919), Alabama (890),  Florida (835), and South Carolina (830) have distinguished themselves with even higher rates -- by far the highest rates of incarceration in the world.
  This policy appears to be driven in part by the political benefits of so-called "prison gerrymandering," which permits prisoners to be counted as residents of the places where prisons are located, rather than where they come from, for purposes of allocating legislative seats. 


This alone helps to explain the fact that annual cost of all US prisons now exceeds $80 billion a year. Indeed, the annual cost of warehousing prisoners in California and New York prisons is at least $50,000 per year per prisoner – much more than the cost of providing them with full time jobs outside!  In addition, in the US, there are over 9 million former prisoners who are now outside prison. More than  5.1 million others remain under supervision, on parole or probation.

090823-prison-hmed-11a.hmedium All told,  the US now has more than 11.3 million past and present inmates. This is  the world’s largest domestic criminal population, an incredible 23.5 percent of all current prisoners in the world.  No doubt the sheer scale of our “criminal industry experience curve”   gives us at least one  clear national competitive advantage -- in crime.  

Indeed, because of our  propensity to throw people in jail regardless of what becomes of them there,  we now account for over a third of the entire world’s living past and present prisoners.  Not surprisingly, this also affords us by far the most costly judicial and corrections systems that the world has ever seen.

For all these costly incarcerations, despite the vast sums and short-cuts associated with processing all of these millions through the pipeline as rapidly as possible, there is not one speck of evidence that this system has contributed one Greek drachma to falling crime or safer streets. 

Indeed, the best evidence is just the opposite. Over two-thirds of US offenders who are released from Justice2 prison are likely to be re-arrested within three years.  Reactionary voices may argue that this just shows we should hold more of them longer, a sure recipe for system bankruptcy. What it really shows is the complete lack of  any real “correction” or retraining in most US prisons. The system that the entire criminal justice machine works so hard to get people into as fast as possible has become the world’s largest training ground for serial offenders.

In short,   if we really want to understand the roots of "ordinary injustice,"  as well as  the intense pressure that each and every player in the US criminal justice system feels to cut corners and slash costs each and every day,  we need to look no further than this self-perpetuating  failed prison state-within-a-state.

After all, this particular failed state already has a total population of current inmates and former inmates under supervision that is greater than Somalia’s!

 

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April 1, 2010 at 04:36 AM | Permalink

Comments

Outside the US your rate of incarceration appears a glaringly obvious indicator that their is little justice to be had in the US

Three strikes and out is the surest sign that in the land of the free there is no freedom for some, at all

Please fight it!

Posted by: Richard Murphy at Apr 2, 2010 2:25:04 AM

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