The Crime of Being Poor
by Paul Wright
"The law in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets and to steal bread."
_ Anatole France
A central part of the mythology of the criminal justice system in the United States is that everyone is treated equally, regardless of his or her race or class. The concept that no one is above the law is a noble one. Like many good ideas, reality usually lags far behind the rhetoric.
Recent years have seen a growing criticism of the criminal justice system on the flawed premise that that the system itself is racist. Proponents of this position support their argument by pointing to statistics that show that black men make up 6% of the national population but almost half of the nation's prison population. Or that at any given time one third of the U.S. population of black men is under criminal justice control, either in prison, jail, probation or parole. (See David Cole's No Equal Justice for a detailed overview of this position.) The end result: a stunning and disproportionately large percentage of black men under criminal justice control, is taken as prima facie evidence that the very system is inherently racist, at least in its outcome.
No one, it seems, is willing to discuss the role that class plays in determining who does and does not go to prison. If the law prohibits rich and poor alike from stealing bread, and both steal bread, how come only the poor go to prison for doing so? The proponents of the institutional racism theory do not claim that rich blacks and Latinos are being herded into prison and jail in vast numbers, because they are not. And what about the whites in prison? Do they count for nothing? White prisoners tend to share one thing with their black and Hispanic compatriots: poverty. Most prisoners report incomes of less than $8,000 a year in the year prior to coming to prison. A majority were unemployed at the time of their arrest. Tellingly, in a society that measures everything, no government statistics are kept on pre incarceration earnings and employment histories. Few researchers seem interested in proving the obvious. [For more on this topic, see Crime and Punishment in America: Why the Solutions to America's Most Stubborn Social Crisis Have not Worked and What Will, by Elliott Curry.]
To answer the question of who goes to prison and why, we must first ask what are prisons for. Some activists mistakenly claim, "prisons don't work." Before we can answer that question, we must first determine what are prisons for? First and foremost, they are tools of social control, a means by which political and economic elites can maintain and enhance their position of dominance over the lower and working classes. The $147 billion a year criminal justice system of police, prosecutors, courts and prisons is to domestic U.S. policy what the military and NATO is to U.S. foreign policy: a means of maintaining the political and economic status quo and crushing any challenges to the current state of affairs. That there is no organized domestic political opposition at this time is immaterial.
If the purpose of prisons is to be a tool of social control to dominate and oversee the poor and working classes who might with political consciousness and organization, pose a threat to the status quo, then the institution of prison is a resounding success. That it can trace its origins and growth to the rise of slavery further supports this. It also explains the absence of rich people, of all races, behind bars. It also explains the reticence of virtually all pundits, academics and even activists to discuss the dirty secret of American politics: class.
Class in the U.S. is almost a forbidden topic. Raise the issue in any context, whether it is tax policy, campaign finance, government subsidies to corporations and criminal justice, and the speaker is quickly dismissed as a lunatic or worse, of fomenting "class war." Never mind that class war is already being waged on the poor and the criminal justice system is the primary weapon in this war. Class looms like a hippopotamus in a swimming pool where all the dinner guests are too polite to mention its existence.
Ironically, one of the few recent books to discuss wealthy people accused or convicted of violent crimes is Dominick Dunne's Justice: Crimes, Trials and Punishments, that documents the inherent systemic bias in favor of the wealthy in the criminal justice system. Despite its subject matter and the serious policy implications it raises, it is largely dismissed as a celebrity biography. That Dunne, a victims advocate, documents criminals "getting away with murder" would normally be great fodder for the tough on crime crowd. But since the "criminals" in his book are all wealthy, the topic is best ignored.
Refusing to address the role that class plays in the criminal justice system, and politics in general, makes it all but impossible to address the root causes of 2 million people behind bars in the U.S. Race and racism do play a factor, but only indirectly. To the extent that blacks and Hispanics are disproportionately poor compared to overall society, they are disproportionately represented in the prison population. Few studies have examined the correlation between race and class. One of the few that did, (cited in Elliott Currie's Crime and Punishment in America), looked at the crime, arrest and incarceration rates in a poor black neighborhood and a poor white neighborhood in Ohio. The not so surprising conclusion was that it is the poor, regardless of race, who bear the brunt of the war on crime, which sounds better than a "war on the poor." This explains why whites are in prisons and the relative absence of wealthy minorities from prisons and jails.
The unspoken reality is that in America today there exists two systems of criminal justice. One for the wealthy, which includes kid-glove investigations, lackluster prosecutions, drug treatment, light sentences and easy, if any, prison time. The other, for the poor, is one of paramilitary policing, aggressive prosecution, harsh mandatory sentences and hard time. Wealth, and the political connec tions inherent to wealth, not race, is the determining factor in deciding which system one gets. This is most obvious when wealthy hip-hop artists and athletes, many of them black, are charged with serious crimes. Class trumps race every time, even if the wealth is new found.
It has been said that America has the best criminal justice system that money can buy. For the most part, the obvious corruption of third world banana republics, with cash exchanging
hands for not guilty verdicts or the dismissal of prosecutions, is not present in the American justice system. Instead, the corruption is more subtle and far worse: the system is biased. At least a corrupt judge or prosecutor is neutral to the extent that they sell their services to highest bidder. The class biased judge or prosecutor, by contrast, is the legal equivalent of going to the casino where the odds inherently favor the house and are unlikely to change.
Other authors have given excellent, book length expositions of how corporate crime is rarely policed and lightly punished when it is. [See George Winslow's Capital Crimes and Jeff Reiman's The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, both books are excellent and highly recommended]. Thus, corporations can and do commit high crimes and misdemeanors with impunity. Likewise for governments and their agents, such as the police or military.
This is not to say that rich people don't commit crimes. They do commit crimes, including violent, sex and drugs crimes, just like poor people do. The difference is that they are treated
quite differently than poor people charged with, and convicted of, similar crimes. Just as it has been since the antebellum era, crimes that cross class lines (i.e., ones that rich people often commit too) will never see harsh mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Child molesting and drunk driving are two examples of this. No one will openly argue that child molesters or drunk drivers deserve a break, as opposed to the poor blacks, whites and Hispanics who possess five grams of crack and get sent to federal prison for five years to mull over the error of their ways. The end result is a system of virtual impunity for the wealthy criminals and draconian punishment for poor criminals.
The most seminal event in the criminal justice system in recent years was the trial and acquittal of O.J. Simpson in Los Angeles for the alleged murder of his ex wife Nicole and her friend
Ron Goldman. Regardless of Simpson's guilt or innocence, the trial clearly showed that class trumps race when it comes to the criminal justice system. At each step of the proceedings Simpson was able to obtain different treatment and results than he would have had he been penniless. This ranged from the obvious (the "dream team" of lawyers who represented him) to the not so obvious (the prosecution's decision not to seek the death penalty.)
Many criminal justice commentators went to great lengths to explain that Simpson's trial was an aberration. And it was. Most people who face serious criminal charges are poor and rely on a publicly funded defense, which is often tantamount to no defense at all. But the O.J. Simpson trial was not an aberration when it comes to rich people accused of crimes. In fact, it is norm.
The most obvious difference with wealthy criminals is that they can afford the best criminal defense lawyers, private investigators and expert witnesses. The government has virtually unlimited resources to investigate and prosecute those crimes it chooses to pursue. An indigent defendant with a low bid court appointed attorney with no resources for expert witnesses or investigators is simply being "processed" through the courts and into prison, not defended. It has been estimated that O.J. Simpson spent between $3 and $5 million on his defense. That is what it takes to level the playing field in a serious criminal case. It is also beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest of criminal defendants.
Wealthy defendants frequently come from the same social strata and share friends and acquaintances with prosecutors. State prosecutors are all elected officials and as such they rely on campaign donations to get elected. The same goes for judges in most states. Does a wealthy campaign contributor get prosecuted or judged differently if accused of a crime than do the poor and political unconnected? Judges and prosecutors claim there is no difference. Just as legislators claim that major campaign donors get no special treatment or benefits than do constituents who don't give them money.
One example is Ken Jenne. In 1998 the former prosecutor raised $274,000 to be elected sheriff of Broward County, Florida. Among his campaign contributors were Jesse Gaddis and Emerson Allsworth, both convicted felons. In 1992 Jenne had testified at Allsworth's sentencing for federal money laundering charges on behalf of a huge drug smuggling ring. Sheriff Jenne refuses to talk to media about his friends and political supporters, even when his campaign
donors are linked to organized crime figures.
After more than 16 years in prison I have yet to meet anyone who was wealthy when they were convicted. I long ago concluded that what people did, in the way of crimes, had no bearing on whether they came to prison. Wealth is the determining factor. Some may disagree with this assessment and insist it is the criminal conduct of the poor that leads to our incarceration but the evidence indicates otherwise.
What about the innocent? The past two decades has seen over 100 people exonerated and released from death row after being convicted and sentenced to death. During the same period, hundreds if not thousands more have been released from prison after being exonerated of the crimes they were convicted of. The reasons for the wrongful convictions range from police and prosecutorial misconduct, incompetent defense counsel, fabricated evidence, lying jailhouse snitches and mistaken eyewitnesses, among others. Yet I have not heard of any wealthy defendants who were wrongly convicted and sentenced to death or prison as a result. Instead, wrongful conviction of the factually innocent seems to be the exclusive province of the poor.
In 1968 Peter Limone was convicted in Boston with four other men of having killed Edward Deegan, a petty criminal in 1965. Limone spent four years on death row and a total of 33 years in prison for Deegan's murder. At the time of his arrest Limone was the owner of a small nightclub. Before Deegan was murdered an informant told the FBI that he would be killed and who would kill him. The same informant, mob hit man, Joseph "the Animal" Barboza, killed Deegan and then framed Limone and his associates in the killing and even testified against them. Recently disclosed FBI documents show that FBI agents knew full well Limone and his friends were innocent, wrongly convicted and sitting in prison for a crime their informant had committed: yet they did nothing. Limone was finally exonerated and released from prison in January 2001, based on information known to the FBI since 1965. One of Limone's co-defendants, Joseph Salvati, was released from prison in 1997. Two of their innocent co-defendants, Henry Tamlo and Louis Greco, weren't so lucky. They died in prison. Would local prosecutors have framed five innocent, wealthy men into prison? Would the FBI have let them sit there and rot for 33 years knowing they were innocent? To their credit, Limone and his co-defendants had committed defense lawyers who fought their cases for literally decades. But a system that allows such injustices can hardly claim vindication when, 33 years later, a federal judge investigating corruption in the Boston FBI office turns up evidence showing innocent men were railroaded onto death row and then does the right thing. [For more on how innocent people wind up on death row or in prison, see Actual Innocence: Five days to execution and other dispatches from the wrongly convicted, by Barry Scheck, et al. See p. 34-35 to order from PLN.]
Limone's story is one of many. Obviously Limone's conduct had nothing to do with his spending 33 years in prison: he didn't kill anyone and the police knew it. Chances are, had he been wealthy he would not have been falsely charged in the first place, much less convicted.
For the purposes of this article I am not going to discuss rich people accused of crimes for which they were later acquitted. While many in the media view the presumption of innocence with a jaundiced view (i.e., the accused must be guilty or the police would not have arrested them and prosecutors would not have charged them), I take it seriously. If someone is acquitted of a crime, that they were presumably innocent of in the first place, then the prosecution never met its burden to establish otherwise. Thus acquittals of wealthy defendants, such as O.J. Simpson for double homicide; William Kennedy Smith for rape; John DeLorean for drug trafficking; and Don King and Imelda Marcos for racketeering are irrelevant. Instead, I want to focus on wealthy people who are convicted of crimes, especially violent crimes, and note their experience in the criminal justice system. At this point guilt is not in doubt or question.
My research assistant for this article, Thomas Sellman, commented that his computer database search criteria of violent crime and light sentence invariably turned up "wealthy defendant." Imagine that.
Guilty of Murder, Go to Jail, Maybe
Susan Cummings is a billionaire heiress. Her father, Sam Cummings, was a global arms trader who made his fortune selling weapons to guerrillas, dictators and despots allied with the United States before he died in 1998. On September 7, 1997, Susan shot and killed her lover, Argentine polo player Roberto Villegas, 38, in the kitchen of her 350 acre estate in Warrenton, Virginia. Eventually she was charged with first degree murder after police determined that she had shot Villegas four times while he was sitting down and Cummings planted a knife near his body to make it appear as if he had attacked her.
On May 13, 1998, Cummings, 35, was convicted of voluntary manslaughter by a Faquier County jury and sentenced to a whopping sixty days in jail. Defense attorney Blair Howard was overjoyed at the verdict and commented it was the lowest sentence for manslaughter he had heard of. Cummings was also fined $2,500 for the killing. The jury rejected Cummings claim of self-defense but apparently was swayed by her claim that Vilegas was abusive.
J. Gregory Ashwell, a county prosecutor, said, "For the longest time, we had a reputation of being pretty darn tough on criminal activity.... This verdict [Cummings] has pretty much cast a shadow on that." Just how tough is Fauquier County? The year before Cummings' trial Ashwell successfully prosecuted a man for killing a cow. The cow killer was sentenced to nine months in jail, seven more than Cummings. A woman who shoplifted a back scratcher got 135 days; a car thief five years; a purse thief 15 months and a man who fired into an empty dwelling got 2 years.
For her part, with good behavior in jail, Cummings was released after serving 51 days of her 60-day jail sentence. Lest she be bothered by the riff raff, the sheriff sent all five of the other women prisoners in the jail to other counties to be housed so that Cummings could have the entire women's section of the jail to herself while incarcerated. Whistleblower guards told media that Cummings received special treatment no other prisoners received: unlimited visits from friends and family, food from restaurants, etc.
But at least Cummings went to jail. In 1986 Dallas, Texas lawyer John Curtis shot fellow lawyer Bill Perrin nine times in his office. Perrin died. Alan Galichia was a client in the office who witnessed the shooting. At trial he testified that Curtis had terrorized Perrin and himself with a pistol for 30 minutes before opening fire on Perrin for no reason. In 1987 a jury convicted Curtis of murder. While facing a sentence of up to 99 years in prison, the jury sentenced Curtis to 10 years probation based on his lawyer's argument that Curtis would be disbarred from the practice of law due to the felony conviction.
As it turned out, Curtis only had his license to practice law suspended for five years. All told, Curtis only spent three years on probation and paid a $10,000 fine for killing Perrin. Curtis argued he could not practice law while on probation and that he needed to resume his legal practice to pay restitution to Perrin's widow. However, state law did not allow judges to impose restitution until 1993. Curtis never paid a penny of restitution to Perrin's family. At the time of the murder, Curtis was a highly successful lawyer who owned a luxurious home and a 1,000-acre ranch in East Texas. By 1996 when the Dallas Morning News reported on his comeback, Curtis once again had a thriving law practice.
Texas is known worldwide as the execution capital of America, where poor criminals are killed on an assembly line of death. Yet co-existing with the same harshness that makes Texas the nation's executioner, (Virginia is also one of the nation's top death penalty states), is a system of laws that allow the wealthy to escape punishment. The same contrast is seen in the "death squad democracies" of South America and Africa where local oligarch's violate the law with impunity while street urchins who pilfer produce from street stands are summarily executed by police death squads.
In 1996 John DuPont, an heir to the DuPont chemical fortune worth an estimated $200 million, shot and killed Dave Schultz, an Olympic wrestling champion who lived on DuPont's estate. DuPont had a history of "eccentric" behavior (known as "crazy" when done by poor people) well before the killing. Charged with first-degree murder for simply shooting and killing Schultz, a jury rejected his defense that he was a paranoid schizophrenic and instead convicted him of third degree murder. He was sentenced to 13 to 30 years in prison and is eligible for parole in 2009 if he can't get released before then. Pennsylvania has one of the biggest death row and prison populations in the country. Many of those convicted populations are also mentally ill. The sentence for first-degree murder in Pennsylvania is death or life without parole.
Murder for Hire
If war is the continuation of politics by other means, then murder for hire is usually the continuation of business by other means. Once thought of as the exclusive province of organized
crime, most murder for hire schemes involve spouses or business associates seeking to rub out their significant others, usually with some type of pecuniary gain in mind.
Recognizing that murder for hire is probably the most premeditated form of murder there is, by definition it requires planning and conspiracy, most states severely punish the solicitation or conspiracy to commit murder. Severely punish that is unless the accused are wealthy. Almost invariably the richer the would be murderer, the more lucre plays a role and the lighter the punishment.
In 1994 Ruthann Aron was running for the U.S. Senate in Maryland on the Republican ticket. The millionaire real estate developer and lawyer campaigned on a "tough on crime" platform, as most politicians in recent decades have done. In an editorial, for the Baltimore Sun she wrote while campaigning for office, Aron said: "We need to restore the quality of life in our streets and in our neighborhoods by putting violent career criminals behind bars permanently. No excuses.... I strongly support the death penalty, truth in sentencing guidelines and minimum mandatory sentences for violent offenders. The `three strikes you're out' legislation is a poor substitute for serious crime prevention measures. I favor stricter `two strikes' legislation that puts dangerous offenders behind bars"permanently."
As with most "tough on crime" advocates, harsh punishment is for the poor. Aron was convicted in 1998 on charges she hired an undercover cop posing as a hit man for $20,000 to murder her husband and an attorney who had sued her over a business dispute. At trial, "no excuses" Aron claimed she was mentally ill and had been sexually abused as a child. Aron eventually pleaded no contest to the charges. Despite state sentencing guidelines that call for a sentence of 8-18 years in prison, Aron was sentenced to only 35 months in prison and five years probation. She was allowed to remain in the Montgomery county jail to serve her sentence rather than go to a state prison to serve her time, as is the norm. Prosecutors dropped charges that she had tried to poison her husband. But, Aron was released in 2000 after serving little more than 2 years in jail, with some of that served on "home detention" in her mansion.
In 1996 another millionaire Maryland real estate developer, Charles Shapiro, was convicted of conspiring to murder his cousin and business partner Marvin Greenfield after Greenfield filed suit, claiming Shapiro had stolen $3 million from their joint business. Shapiro was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Ray Evans, a former policeman who was paid $50,000 to kill Greenfield and botched two attempts, was sentenced to 27 years in prison. But with wealthy defendants, it seems criminal sentences are rarely permanent. In 2001 Shapiro had his sentence reduced by 2-1/2 years and he was eligible for parole after serving five years in prison.
Some of the other lesser-known wealthy defendants who fared well after being convicted of violent crimes include Jose Habie, a Guatemalan textile magnate who kidnapped his twin children in 1992 and took them to Guatemala. FBI agents arrested Habie during a business trip to Florida in 2001. Habie spent the night in jail and agreed to plead guilty to international parental kidnapping in federal court. Habie was sentenced to five years probation after his ex wife Amy requested leniency on his behalf. What brought about Amy's sudden change of heart after nine years of bitter litigation and criminal charges? Habie agreed to give Amy $4.5 million to help with her legal fees and joint custody of the children.
In 2000, Aftab Islam, 59, a millionaire securities broker from India pleaded guilty in Manhattan to assault charges for bludgeoning his wife Theresa Havell while she was asleep, with a 10 pound dumbbell. Charged with attempted first-degree murder, Islam's high-powered defense team negotiated the plea to a reduced charge and an 8-1/2 year prison sentence. Havell required 26 surgeries to rebuild her crushed jaw, nose, eye sockets, fingers, teeth and fractured skull. In a final blow, Havell had to pay Islam's attorneys $215,000 in legal fees for his defense from their marital estate before they could divorce.
The past decade has seen the demonization of sex criminals. Sex offenders must register with police and face a host of other restrictions. But unlike crimes committed mostly by the poor, sex crimes still allow for extremely lenient sentences of probation and suspended sentences, with judges and prosecutors deciding who gets these light sentences. It never hurts to be wealthy when convicted of a sex crime.
Perhaps no crime is viler than the sexual abuse of children. With the exception of drunk driving, no other crime cuts across class lines more frequently than pedophilia. Yet what spurs judicial and prosecutorial outrage when committed by the poor, provokes little more than yawns when committed by the wealthy and well heeled.
Daniel Gajdusek won the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1976 for his research in slow viruses that attack the body, such as mad cow disease and AIDS. In 1997 Gajdusek, then 73, pleaded guilty in Maryland to two counts of child sex abuse for molesting a 16-year-old boy he had brought to the U.S. from the Pacific Islands, where he had conducted most of his research for decades. Gajdusek was sentenced to 30 years in jail but then had all but 18 months of the sentence suspended by circuit court judge Jim Dwyer.
All told, starting in the 1960s, Gajdusek brought 56 children, mostly boys, from the Pacific Islands to his Maryland home, ostensibly to educate them. At least five boys claimed that Gajdusek molested them. Gajdusek was arrested after an FBI investigation of child pornography on the Internet found Gajdusek's research journals on trips to New Guinea, Micronesia and other Pacific Islands that describe sex rituals between men and boys.
When he accepted his Nobel Prize in 1976 Gajdusek had 8 of his adopted young boys in tow and promised to use his prize money to pay for their educations. Gajdusek served little less than a year in jail. But his lenient treatment didn't stop there. Within hours of being released from jail in 1998 Gajdusek left for France, where prosecutors agreed to let him serve his five-year probation unsupervised. Gajdusek's lawyer said he would continue his "scientific work" there. Presumably poor pedophiles that don't have Nobel prizes would have had to serve their probation sentences in the U.S., and register as sex offenders with the attendant hassles that that entails. That Gajdusek used his "work" as a ruse to perpetrate his sexual abuse of children for almost four decades was not mentioned by the court or prosecutors who frequently raise the topic in other contexts.
In 1990 millionaire San Francisco hotel owner Donald Werby avoided child rape charges in their entirety by pleading guilty to two misdemeanor charges of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Werby agreed to pay a $300,000 fine and was sentenced to three years probation.
Originally, a grand jury had indicted Werby on 22 felony sex and drug charges stemming from his hiring of underage prostitutes and furnishing them with crack cocaine for sex. All the felony sex charges, with their potential for prison time, sex offender registration, civil commitment, etc., were quietly dropped.
Russell Macguire is the predatory pedophile that is every parent's nightmare. But the heir to the Thompson submachine gun fortune, who was once worth an estimated $100 million, has led a charmed existence with the criminal justice system despite a track record that indicates a career pedophile. In 1977 Maguire was charged with raping several girls he was traveling with, but those charges were dropped. In 1978 he was found not guilty by reason of insanity for raping an 8-year-old girl in a national park in Washington. In 1984 he was convicted in Florida of molesting an 8 year old girl who said Maguire had lavished her with gifts, spent the night with her in his condo, fed her baby food, made her lie on top of him and rubbed her beneath her nightgown. Represented by F. Lee Bailey, Maguire pleaded no contest to the charges and received ten years of probation.
In 1990 Maguire's probation was revoked for approaching children in a supermarket parking lot and offering them $100 to get into his car with him. While that is not illegal, Maguire's parole conditions prohibited him from having contact with children. Maguire had his probation revoked and was sent to prison for nine years. That proved short-lived as the Florida Supreme Court held that the sentencing judge had exceeded sentencing guidelines. Maguire spent a total of 27 months before being released on probation again.
In 2000, Gregory Wilbanks, a millionaire businessman in Florida was sentenced to 8 years in prison for raping a bank employee, Kelly Smith, he had lured to his home under the guise of opening an account at her bank. The sentence was the minimum allowed under Florida law. More significantly, prosecutors have declined to charge Wilbanks in complaints by four other women that Wilbanks raped them under similar circumstances. Charges that if prosecuted, would have exposed Wilbanks to a potentially long term in prison.
Rapper Tupac Shakur, who was killed in 1996, was convicted in 1994 of first-degree sexual abuse for luring a fan into his hotel room in New York City and groping her with some friends. At the time of his death, Shakur was out on a $500,000 appeal bond while he appealed that conviction. Appeal bonds for convicted violent criminals are very rare, at least for poor ones. More so when one considers Shakur's criminal record. Less than a year before his conviction Shakur was convicted of beating a video director and served 15 days in jail for the attack in 1993. A month after that he was sentenced to 10 days in jail for menacing fans in Michigan. Six months after that he was charged with shooting two off duty cops in Atlanta, those charges were later dropped. Five months after being arrested on the sexual abuse charges in New York, and while awaiting trial, Shakur was arrested in California on charges of possessing pot and carrying a concealed weapon. Obviously Shakur's race was no disadvantage to him. If it was, it was more than offset by his wealth and that of his record label that had a vested interest in keeping him out of prison and cutting albums for them at any cost.
The War on Poor Drug Users
The war on drugs is really a war on poor drug users. Estimates of the U.S. drug trade vary widely from $100 to $600 billion a year. The most obvious conclusion is that this money is not all coming from America's poor who, by definition, don't have a lot of money. At any given time, at least 400,000 people are imprisoned in American prisons or jails based on drug crimes alone (possession, sale or trafficking). Indeed, the massive round up of poor drug users and addicts is the main impetus behind the expansion of the prison system. If rich and poor alike use drugs, and the law, in its majestic equality punishes drug use by both, why do only the poor go to prison?
Prosecutorial discretion is one reason. Judicial bias another. Nothing illustrates the two-track criminal justice system, one for the rich and politically connected, one for the poor and
unknown, than the war on drugs. It also exposes the hypocrisy of those "tough on crime" chicken-hawks who pander for tougher criminal penalties, as long as those penalties do not apply to them, their family or friends who are convicted of drug crimes.
In 1997 Randall Cunningham was busted smuggling 400 pounds of marijuana from California to Boston. Despite confessing to smuggling two other drug shipments and being part of a huge drug smuggling operation, Cunningham was only charged with one drug possession offense, to which he pleaded guilty. Out on bond before sentencing, he tested positive for cocaine use three times. In November 1998, he was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison, despite statutes calling for a mandatory minimum sentence of 5 years for possessing the 400 pounds of pot. Cunningham's father, who made a tearful plea for mercy at his son's sentencing, happens to be Randy "Duke" Cunningham, a U.S. Republican congressman from California. Four months before his son's arrest, Cunningham Sr. was saying "we must get tough on drug dealers." At his son's sentencing, he told the judge "My son has a good heart, he's never been in trouble before." The same plea that when made by the parents of poor criminals falls on deaf ears.
In July 1998, Claude Shelby was arrested smuggling a half-ounce of hash from London into Atlanta. He was fined $500 by U.S. Customs, which he paid on the spot. His father is Republican senator from Alabama Richard Shelby who has long championed draconian drug penalties. In response to a constituent whose son was imprisoned on federal drug charges, senator Shelby said: "Any person who is caught with drugs should spend the rest of his life in prison. I have no sympathy for them." Senator Shelby lacks the courage of his convictions.
Dan Burton is best known as the whacko Republican congressman from Indiana who pursued president Clinton like a modern day Ahab tormenting Moby Dick. He has called for the death penalty for drug dealers. In 1994 his son, Dan Burton II, was arrested transporting eight pounds of marijuana from Texas to Indiana. While out of bail awaiting trial on those charges, Burton II was arrested five months later growing 30 pot plants in his Indianapolis apartment and had a shotgun to guard them. He never faced federal prosecution, despite it being a federal offense to possess a firearm both while awaiting trial and during a drug offense. Prosecuted on state charges, he received house arrest, probation and community service. Federal law calls for a mandatory minimum of five years for possessing a firearm during a drug offense. For whatever reason, federal prosecutors decided this crime wasn't worth prosecuting.
In 1992 Richard Riley Jr., the son of the former governor of South Carolina, Richard Riley, who was Clinton's secretary of education, was indicted on federal charges of conspiring to sell marijuana and cocaine. He faced ten years to life in prison. Ultimately Riley Jr. was sentenced to six months of house arrest. Riley Jr. was later pardoned as President Clinton was leaving office in 2001. Cindy McCain is the wife of Republican Senator and presidential candidate John McCain. In 1995 Cindy admitted to stealing Percocet and Vicodin from the American Voluntary Medical Team, a group she oversaw which provides humanitarian aid to third world countries. Cindy was not even arrested or prosecuted. Instead, she entered a pretrial diversion program to treat her drug addiction. There is nothing wrong with treating drug addicts. However, when poor drug addicts are herded into prison in vast numbers and their addictions are left untreated, it seems odd that a senator's wife should get such preferential treatment. When the Arizona Republic raised the issue senator McCain responded by blacklisting the paper from his campaign.
In 1986 then Arkansas governor Bill Clinton's brother Roger was arrested on federal cocaine trafficking charges. Charges that carried very long prison sentences if he were convicted. In exchange for snitching on all his associates Roger served two years in prison. Would he have gotten the light sentence if his brother weren't governor? Who knows? In 2001 Roger received a complete pardon by his brother, now the president, so apparently it doesn't hurt to have a brother in politics.
In 2002, Noelle Bush, daughter of Florida governor Jeb Bush and niece of President George Bush, was arrested on drug charges. Placed in a treatment center, she was found in possession of crack cocaine, but treatment staff would not cooperate with police, so charges were dropped. Noelle's mother being Mexican was apparently not a factor in this outcome.
Darlene Watts is the sister of black Republican congressman from Oklahoma Julius Caesar Watts. She received a seven year suspended sentence in 1998 after pleading guilty to possession and distribution of marijuana and methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia and maintaining a property where drugs were kept. Political connections seem to have outweighed race in this case as well.
It's a Money Thing
These are some of the many similar examples of wealthy criminal receiving deferential treatment when accused and convicted of crimes. It is not meant to be a catalog or list of the criminal exploits of the wealthy and politically connected (the topic of a monumental tome in and of itself) but merely to illustrate how, at each step of the criminal justice process they are treated more leniently than poor people convicted of the same offenses.
It's been said that that there are few problems in life that money can't fix. When it comes to the American criminal justice system, it would appear that few crimes are so serious, heinous or dastardly that wealth cannot resolve them.
Probably the most serious violent crime in recent American history were the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and on the Pentagon in Washington D.C. The American national security establishment quickly fingered Osama Bin Laden as the alleged mastermind of the plot and put a $25 million bounty on his head. Bin Laden himself is wealthy, but his extended family is extremely wealthy from their multi-billion dollar construction and investment businesses. At the time of the September 11 attacks some two dozen members of the Bin Laden family were in the U.S. With FBI approval, they were spirited out of the country by the Saudi Arabian embassy. None were even questioned by law enforcement officials. A puzzled New Yorker observed that it is common practice to question the relatives of suspected criminals. Poor criminals and their relatives perhaps, but not well heeled billionaires. Regardless of how monumental the crime being investigated may be.
Michael Milken is best known as the criminal financier who plundered billions through the sale of junk bonds in the 1980s. Convicted of securities fraud in 1991, Milken was originally sentenced to ten years on prison. He had his sentence reduced by a judge and eventually served only 22 months in federal prison. Milken's sentence included a lifetime bar on ever working in the securities industry. Despite paying $1.1 billion dollars in fines and civil damages from his criminal rampage, Milken remains a billionaire.
In 1997 the Securities and Exchange Commission brought charges against Milken for brokering several big money mergers in the media industry. In 1998 Milken agreed to pay the SEC $47 million in exchange for the SEC not filing charges to have his probation revoked. Each year some 200,000 people go to prison for violating the conditions of their parole or probation. Presumably they lack the $47 million to make criminal charges go away.
In 1994 singer Michael Jackson was facing criminal investigation on charges he sexually assaulted a 14 year old boy. The criminal investigation floundered when Jackson paid the boy a settlement in the $10 to $50 million-dollar range to settle a civil lawsuit brought by the child. (The settlement itself was confidential, news sources quoted figures in that range with $25 million being the figure most frequently cited.) With the settlement the child stopped cooperating with investigators. While a civil settlement is not the same as a criminal conviction, the obvious point is that a poor accused child rapist can't pay an alleged victim an 8-figure sum in cash to go away.
Those who trumpet the concept that all citizens, regardless of race or class, are equal before the law may dismiss the above as isolated examples. But how many isolated examples does it take to make a pattern? On the contrary, it is aberrant for the wealthy who commit, and are convicted of serious crimes, to go to prison at all, much less for lengthy stays. Hence the lack of correlation between criminal behavior and who goes to prison.
The lawbreaking activity of professional athletes and hip-hop artists is well documented in numerous books and magazine articles. Even though many of them are racial minorities, with the first class legal representation and the inherent respectability that money buys, they are rarely convicted of the crimes with which they are charged and if convicted they face the light punishment that their new found wealth entitles them to.
Just as the criminal justice system is not a racist conspiracy, neither is it a fair or equal system. Each step of the way, from policing, to courts, to counsel, to sentencing, to prison, to parole
and pardons, the system falls most heavily on the backs of the poor, innocent or guilty. Designed to control and contain the dangerous classes, the criminal justice system "works" and functions perfectly well in safeguarding the political and economic status quo. At $147 billion a year, American has the best criminal justice system money can buy.
Sources: New Times, New York Times, Richmond Times Dispatch, Washington Post, Dallas Morning News, National Law Journal, Washington Times, Baltimore Sun, Palm Beach Post, Charleston Gazette, San Francisco Chronicle, St.Petersburg Times, St. Louis Post Dispatch, Newsday, Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, FAMM-Gram, Atlanta Journal Constitution, North Coast Xpress, New Yorker, Seattle Times.
Special thanks to Thomas Sellman for research assistance in this article.