by Christopher Zoukis
They say money can’t buy happiness, and more money just leads to more problems. But when it comes to the criminal justice system, wealth can get an accused murderer out on bail, a celebrity a great plea deal and a sex offender an upgraded jail stay.
The money bail system is a classic example of the difference that wealth makes in our nation’s justice system. When real estate tycoon Tiffany Li was charged with orchestrating the murder of her children’s father in 2017, bail was set at $35 million – a record amount for San Mateo County, California. Not a problem – Li, her family and friends are loaded, and quickly came up with $66 million in cash and real estate to make her bond. Li was picked up from jail by a bodyguard and whisked away in a Cadillac Escalade. [See: PLN, Feb. 2018, p.60].
Meanwhile, in New York, there are people who have been accused of petty crimes languishing in jail because they cannot post $1.00 in bail. Literally one dollar.
Having money can get you a better plea deal, too. In Palm Beach, Florida, “Real Housewives of New York” star Luann de Lesseps, 53, was charged with four felonies, including battery on a law enforcement officer, but was able to work out a favorable plea bargain in May 2018. All of the charges were reduced to misdemeanors; Lesseps received one year of probation and was required to complete 50 hours of community service, attend AA meetings and attend a victim impact class provided by Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
And for the man who has everything (but is going to jail), money can buy an upgraded cell. In conjunction with The Marshall Project, in March 2017 the Los Angeles Times reported on California’s unique “pay-to-stay” jail system. This unusual program allows some well-heeled prisoners to serve their time in safer jails with more amenities – for a price. The small Seal Beach city jail, for example, charges $120 a night for semi-private rooms with single showers, flat-screen TVs and 24-hour access to a telephone. For $140 per day, eligible prisoners can participate in work furloughs. [See: PLN, July 2010, p.1].
California’s pay-to-stay jail program is controversial for obvious reasons. The law that allows prisoners to purchase an upgrade was designed to ease overcrowding in the Los Angeles County jail system by giving low-level offenders another option. But judges have discretion to allow pay-to-stay, and the Times found that 4.5 percent of the cases involved prisoners charged with serious offenses such as assault, robbery and child sexual abuse.
Hip-hop choreographer Shane Sparks, for example, who was convicted in 2011 of having sex with a pre-teen girl, spent 135 days at Alhambra’s pay-to-stay city jail over a two-year period as he continued to work and travel internationally. He wore his own clothes, brought his own food and bedding, and used his time to edit music on his computer. The jail charges $100 per day for the upgraded conditions.
“It was actually a retreat for me,” he stated.
Monique Fronti, who said Sparks began sexually abusing her when she was 12 years old, saw things differently.
“He got to take what he wanted from me and take what he wanted from the court,” Fronti declared. “And at no point did I feel like I had justice.”
Pay-to-stay jails are big business for some cities. Revenue reports show that around 26 city jails in California took in almost $7 million between 2011 and 2015. Some cities market their facilities as quality upgrades for the well-to-do. The jail in Santa Ana, for example, advertises on its website that it provides a “less intimidating experience.”
Defendants who have the ability to pay are more than willing to purchase a jail cell upgrade, even when they recognize the unfair nature of the system. Luicci Nader, who was 18 years old when he crashed his Ferrari and killed his cousin, spent six months in a pay-to-stay jail. His family paid $18,000 for the upgraded accommodations.
“I was lucky,” Nader admitted. “A less fortunate person in my shoes should have the same option.”
But they don’t, though. LAPD detective John Eum, who investigated Sparks, decried the perverse impact that wealth has on the justice system.
“The whole criminal justice system is becoming more and more about: How much money do you have?” said Eum. “Can you afford better attorneys? Can you afford to pay for a nicer place to stay?”
In February 2016, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, speaking on the Senate floor, sharply criticized the wealth-based nature of our criminal justice system. [See: PLN, June 2017, p.1].
“There are two legal systems,” Warren said. “One for the rich and powerful, and one for everyone else.”
She added: “It’s not equal justice when a kid gets thrown in jail for stealing a car, while a CEO gets a huge raise when his company steals billions. It’s not equal justice when someone hooked on opioids gets locked up for buying pills on the street, but bank executives get off scot-free for laundering nearly a billion dollars of drug cartel money.”
The above examples, among many others, indicate that while crime may not pay, those who can afford to make bond, hire top-notch attorneys and pay for upgraded jail cells receive an entirely different form of justice than those who are poor and cannot.
Sources: www.nytimes.com, www.abcnews.go.com, www.latimes.com, www.nbcnews.com, www.mercurynews.com, www.scmp.com, www.nypost.com, www.palmbeachdailynews.com, Huffington Post, www.eonline.com, www.sealbeachca.gov
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