by Paul Wright
The most striking thing about the American criminal justice system is its class-based nature. With one system of non-policing, lackluster prosecutions, lenient sentences and minimal consequences for the wealthy and another system of militarized policing, scorched earth prosecutions, draconian sentences and punishment that never ends for the poor. This very systemic inequality is one of the things that makes significant criminal justice reform so elusive: the people with the power to change it are not impacted by it, and the people impacted by it lack the power to change it.
Rivers of ink have been spent claiming that race-based disparities are the primary source of criminal injustice in the U.S. Yet no one is claiming that wealthy racial minorities are being herded into prison in vast numbers, or significant numbers at all for that matter. Instead, the burden of mass incarceration falls exclusively on the backs of the poor of all races. After more than three decades of reporting on wrongful convictions, I think I can safely say that wrongful convictions are the exclusive monopoly of the poor.
A number of years ago I was speaking at a conference about the death penalty, and one of my fellow panelists was the distinguished lawyer Ron Tabak, who has extensively researched and written about the death penalty. Ron has reviewed every death sentence handed down in the U.S., going back to colonial times. When I asked him if a rich person had ever been sentenced to death, he thought about it and replied the closest he could come up with were Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the “Atom Bomb spies” who were convicted of espionage and executed. Julius was a factory worker and Ethel was a housewife, far from most people’s ideas of wealthy. Once again, it seems that those without the capital get the punishment.
Since its inception, Prison Legal News has been one of the very few publications and organizations that has focused on the class and wealth-based inequities of the criminal justice system. Like a lot of things, this is something most Americans already know. I doubt many believe people are treated equally in the criminal justice system regardless of their wealth, celebrity or political and social status. Instead, impunity and special treatment are the hallmarks of such status.
Around 20 years ago, I wrote an article titled The Crime of Being Poor, which documented this all-too-common phenomenon and was well received. About a decade ago, Matt Clarke wrote a similar article titled Celebrity Justice, which was similar to his story on the cover of this issue of PLN. The article was actually the basis for a whole show on National Public Radio’s Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me. It was one of their better shows, and quoted Matt’s PLN article extensively. I thought it was great that we were reaching a bigger audience, but at the same time it was somewhat sad that NPR needed PLN to tell their listeners about wealth-based inequalities in the criminal justice system.
It is important to note we focus only on defendants who were convicted. If the state did not meet its burden of proof and the defendant was acquitted, we did not discuss it, and we are not going into whether or not wealth played a part in the acquittals of wealthy defendants like Michael Jackson, Robert Blake, O.J. Simpson, et al. Lets just talk about punishment of people who have been found guilty. That is when we learn that sex crime or violent crime coupled with wealthy defendant becomes synonymous with lenient sentence.
Our articles are well researched, but that said, we don’t find everything. After my article The Crime of Being Poor was published, a reader wrote in and asked why I hadn’t mentioned the fact that then-first lady Laura Bush had killed her boyfriend in a car crash in Texas. I had not been aware of it at the time, and it was a story that got little media attention; but then the fact that she killed someone and was never even seriously investigated is another matter. We focus on rich people who are convicted of crimes. Do wealth and social connections which allow the hiring of the best lawyers that money can buy contribute to these outcomes? One person to ask might be Augustus Busch IV, heir to the beer fortune of the same name. Over the years at least two women have died in his company in incidents involving drugs and alcohol, and he has a long history of alcohol abuse leading to police chases. In one chase, police shot out his car tire and then, upon discovering who he was, proceeded to change the tire for him. Women die in his bedroom, and his attorneys call the police and are waiting for them to swing by and pick up the cadavers. That he is a billionaire I am sure has nothing to do with these outcomes. But he doesn’t get charged with crimes, much less prosecuted.
There are the mug-shot pictures of Bill Gates from when he lived in New Mexico, but no one has ever been able to attach them to an arrest report or a prosecution; those documents have vanished into thin air. I can go on and on, but it only proves the point.
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