Fairness in the justice system is basic for maintaining trust in any country. But there are two systems of justice in America: one for the very rich and powerful and one for the poor and powerless.
It often seems that the larger the crime and the more powerful the offender, the less likely it is that the criminal will see prison time. On the flip side, our prisons are crowded with poor young men, mostly minorities, most of whom have committed comparatively minor offenses.
Not a single senior executive in any of the banks involved in precipitating the financial crash has been prosecuted. Even in cases where banks have engaged in blatantly criminal activity, such as HSBC which was fined $1.9 billion for money laundering for Latin American drug lords, no one in a leadership position is behind bars. The biotech giant Amgen has pleaded guilty to illegally selling a misbranded drug, and was fined $762 million, the largest such settlement in U.S. history. Yet, this same corporation, which has 74 lobbyists in Washington, used its influence to gain a massive benefit at taxpayer expense by inserting a provision into the recent “fiscal cliff” legislation as described in a recent New York Times story.
It’s shocking that people (yes, according to our Supreme Court, corporations are people) who have committed illegal acts on this scale can dictate legislation in Washington. Even more unfair is the fact that executives walk free after admitting crimes that would have landed a young black male in prison for decades.
A few days after this story broke, I saw The House I Live In a stunning documentary on the disastrous “war on drugs” and its devastating impact on minority communities. Since 1971 we have spent $1trillion on this misguided campaign and there have been 45 million arrests. As a result, 500,000 people – mostly black males – are currently in prison for non-violent drug offenses. Until 2010, this draconian approach imposed a five-year mandatory sentence for simple possession of crack cocaine (sold on the street largely by blacks). The Fair Sentencing Act eliminated this mandatory sentence and reduced the disparity between the amount of crack cocaine and powder cocaine (used largely by whites) required to trigger some federal penalties from 100:1 weight ratio to an 18:1 weight ratio.
In an earlier blog I referenced Michelle Alexander’s book,The New Jim Crow, in which she traces the criminalization of a whole class of people, driven in part for political reasons. Poor whites, she says, felt “socially demoted” during the civil rights era and through affirmative action. Politicians saw their resentment as a potent political force to be exploited. It was no longer acceptable to appeal to race explicitly, but the criminal justice system, especially drug laws, could be designed in ways that effectively discriminate against minorities. As a result of the drug war, hundreds of thousands of minority males are disenfranchised and excluded from the job market.
Now prisons have become big business. Communities vie for the jobs and economic benefit they bring. Meanwhile, we have a large section of the population that is increasingly excluded from participating in society. The House I Live In raises the disturbing possibility that our prisons will become places where America warehouses this group for profit. Great work on this important film by writer and director Sieugene Jarecki and executive producer Danny Glover.