"...disgraces every American official who has colluded in it."
November 19, 2013 2:41 PM   Subscribe

The Economist takes aim at the American criminal justice system in three articles from their latest edition: An opinion piece on mandatory life sentences without parole, a more in-depth view of some specific instances and of the data, and a look at the practice of charging fees to those convicted, or even just accused.
posted by felixc (36 comments total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm glad the Economist did this, but I also can't help but laugh at the British spelling of "Brennan Centre" in the last piece.
posted by likeatoaster at 2:50 PM on November 19, 2013


TLDR edition:

Incarceration Rate per 100,000
in select OECD Nations
==============================
044 Iceland
063 Japan
085 Ireland
090 Germany
096 Italy
134 Australia
153 England and Wales
197 New Zealand
209 Mexico
753 United States


One of these things is not like the others...
posted by deanklear at 2:58 PM on November 19, 2013 [14 favorites]




Also, it's not just some of the individual state laws that are the problem (looking at you, Louisiana) -- the federal Sentencing Guidelines are often REAL severe (especially for "career offenders"), and pull an awful lot of weight in the courts.
posted by likeatoaster at 3:02 PM on November 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Just a little FTFY from rtha's link : "Changing the law, they said, would remove an important tool [for intimidating innocent people] from the prosecutorial toolbox."
posted by jeffburdges at 3:05 PM on November 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Here in Augusta, GA we have a lovely little outfit called Sentinel Offender Services that collects fees from people convicted of various petty crimes. Their conduct has been so egregious that even the regular law and order commenters in the local paper cheered when they got smacked down by a judge; basically Sentinel was continuing to charge probationers long after they had completed the terms of their original sentence and having them jailed if they couldn't pay, even if their original sentence did not include jail time. The article I linked doesn't mention it but the attorney behind the lawsuits against Sentinel is my ex's uncle, who is a good guy and whom I wish well in this endeavour.
posted by TedW at 3:05 PM on November 19, 2013 [9 favorites]


I wish articles like this had more of a chance at changing things, but two powerful forces move against that: first, we, the people of the US, don't incarcerate people like this because we care about the logic of results. We do it because we get an emotional charge out of punishing people, and an emotional charge out of being "tough," and we want to do it regardless of the cost. Second, rich and powerful corporations exercise all the influence they can to keep it that way. I don't know where logic or morality can even get a foothold.

You show people the numbers, that we're six or seven times the rate of comparable nations, and they manage to take it as proof that we're doing things better. So where do you even start?
posted by tyllwin at 3:15 PM on November 19, 2013 [5 favorites]


Related to the practice of charging fees to those convicted, I read this article a while back about police in rural Texas basically stopping people and stealing their valuables. They threaten them with drug charges and the related legal hassle and expense, or let them go in exchange for valuables. The proceeds from selling the valuables then go directly into police compensation. Pretty awful.
posted by pravit at 3:17 PM on November 19, 2013 [5 favorites]


This is great and I'm glad the Economist is doing this. Our prison system is just so fucked up it's unreal.

Something related and which doesn't get as much scrutiny as I think it should is the for-profit prison industry and their involvement in the high incarceration rate.
posted by triggerfinger at 3:18 PM on November 19, 2013 [7 favorites]


Related to the practice of charging fees to those convicted, I read this article a while back about police in rural Texas basically stopping people and stealing their valuables. They threaten them with drug charges and the related legal hassle and expense, or let them go in exchange for valuables.

Holy God, that's terrifying. This is one of those places privilege comes into really, really stark relief; I'm an upper middle class well-educated cis-gendered white woman who passes for straight (bisexual but married to a man) with no criminal record and well-respected family members (including one in the justice system) willing to support me so I could maybe (MAYBE) take the risk of saying no here but only because I have enough privilege to back up any statement I make. The idea of government forces behaving that way is both horrifying and really foreign to me because I'm just lucky enough that I don't get hassled by police; my only interactions really are sometimes I ask them for directions and shit like this just goes to show how unbelievably lucky I am because I only hear about this crazy nonsense and don't experience it. Wow wow wow.

All this shit is fucking terrible and I really appreciate Metafilter threads about these issues because without them, my privilege insulates me such that I just wouldn't know, and I think that holds true for a lot of people.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 3:30 PM on November 19, 2013 [8 favorites]


triggerfinger, that story is a perfect example of why one should never consent to a police search.
posted by ogooglebar at 3:37 PM on November 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


In Texas, it's not just robbing people's valuables, but road-soft strip searches. They are pretty intrusive.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 3:38 PM on November 19, 2013


And, of course, there's civil forfeiture laws, where the police seize personal property, sell it off, and pocket the proceeds. All without ever actually charging you with a crime. Mere "suspicion" is all it takes.

This is going on all over the country
posted by Thorzdad at 3:39 PM on November 19, 2013


Harpersville and Childersburg are small Alabama towns that are bisected by Highway 280, a formerly sleepy country road that got four-laned when development in northern Shelby County boomed in the 1970s and 1980s. At one end of Highway 280 is Mountain Brook, the tiny kingdom, the richest zip code in the state. At the other end of Highway 280 are all those rich folks lake houses. Not to mention all the people commuting into Birmingham from Sylacauga, a few miles down the road. And the beaches beyond. In between squat Harpersville and Childersburg, pissant little speed traps that have three cop cars for every dozen citizens, and every one of them sitting on Highway 280 24/7 pulling people over because the speed limit goes from 65 to 35 in about two hundred feet.

It is a racket, and it has been so for years and years and years. I remember being in the car with my parents when Harpersville pulled over my dad for speeding thirty years ago, and I've gotten a speeding ticket in Childersburg in the past decade. Speeding tickets are how they fund all them civic improvements like sidewalks and rec centers, y'all, except they ain't got none of those, so who the hell knows what they're spending the money on. The only innovation is that now they've outsourced the extortion to an even more pitiless and ruthless private entity.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 3:39 PM on November 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


triggerfinger, that story is a perfect example of why one should never consent to a police search.

Oops! I meant pravit's New Yorker story. Sorry for the mix-up.
posted by ogooglebar at 3:46 PM on November 19, 2013


Hey, c'mon everybody, unclench, okay?
posted by George_Spiggott at 3:53 PM on November 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


The criminal justice system in the US is as broken, if not more so, than the economy of the nation as a whole (wages for the working class, the mortgage loans crisis, social security benefits, etc.). The main differentiating factor is that the brokenness of the criminal justice system is, well, more criminal.

The incarceration of people by sheer numbers is shocking, particularly if you can think un-American for a minute (i.e. watch the reactions of the British). Americans have grown so used to and complacent with the atrocity of the system that we are clearly desensitized. We have more than twice as many people in prison that South Africa, as Fry points out. I lived in South Africa, and crime there is fucking terrifying - home invasion robberies being commonplace, brutal crimes being the norm, when you see a bank truck on the road you get the hell out of the way because they are frequently the target of massive gun battles. But we have twice as many people in prison as them. And there's a hell of a lot more black people there than in the US, percentage wise, so throw the race thing right out the window.

It has literally become a system of treating certain classes of humans as animals. We lock them up in cages and expect the problem to go away, but instead it only gets worse. Not entirely unlike what happens when you try the same with an animal, instead of doing the hard work of treating it with a sense of decency and respect. In some cases we are more cruel than one would normally be to a problem animal - we lock the problem humans up in solitary confinement. By the thousands (fucking ESTIMATES say 25,000?), and for years on end. We literally know and have proof that this is not just harmful to the human psyche but drives people to insanity, and yet that's our solution. Complete inhumanity.

The more and more I see of the US, the more it begins to appear to me to be worse than rogue states like Syria and North Korea. At least Kim Jong is just straight up fucking murdering his people and putting them out of their misery. What we do with our criminals is psychotically hateful and pathologically damaged at its core. I get more and more tired of being embarrassed to be an American, and I do not see an easy fix here.
posted by allkindsoftime at 3:59 PM on November 19, 2013 [9 favorites]


The criminal justice system in the US is as broken, if not more so, than the economy of the nation as a whole

It's a symbiotic relationship, each helps keep the other from getting better.
posted by oneswellfoop at 4:08 PM on November 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


This jumped out at me "...blacks are 91% of non-violent life-without-parole prisoners in Louisiana, 79% in Mississippi and 68% in South Carolina."

Anyone here care to argue that America is 'post-racist'? (I doubt it, but I know that is a common argument in some right-wing forums). I apologize in advance for automatically considering those that would argue that we don't have a racism problem in this country to be, well, racist.
posted by el io at 4:11 PM on November 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Something else springs to mind as I read stories like this.

When I was a child (of the 80's), we were taught about the evils of communism. Part of that included the government spying on their citizens (which seems to be what the NSA is up to), and another part of that was labor camps and sending people to Siberia for minor offenses. These were characteristics of an 'evil state', and we were taught how lucky that in America we were free; the contrast with the Soviet Union was a stark one.

Now, the only thing that jumps into my head as the great distinction between us and the Soviet Union is that we have a great selection of groceries to choose from (don't get me wrong, I'm quite thankful for this).

We torture (perhaps not anymore, or at least outsourced these days), we assassinate, we spy on our own people, we perhaps imprison at a greater rate than the Soviets ever did.

This thanksgiving, i'll be thankful for the great selection of food we have when grocery shopping.
posted by el io at 4:26 PM on November 19, 2013 [25 favorites]


el io: One theory that's been advanced by some is that the Soviet Union had a moderating effect on US domestic policy, since it would be embarrassing to have more people imprisoned than the USSR, or more obvious domestic spying. But with the fall of the Warsaw Pact governments, there doesn't seem to be much concern for even the appearance of evildoing.
posted by thegears at 5:41 PM on November 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


the evils of communism

In the 60's we kids learned that the court system in the USSR was completely unjust, because get this, the prosecutors had all the power.
posted by telstar at 5:44 PM on November 19, 2013 [5 favorites]


153 England and Wales
197 New Zealand
209 Mexico
753 United States


*ahem* Clearly, we in the US aspire to a higher standard for human behavior.
posted by Twang at 5:53 PM on November 19, 2013


I'd like to see some figures on convictions that don't end up in jail and compare. How many criminal convictions do we, as a nation, and the states individually, churn out each year? How many people out of 100,000 in the listed countries have a criminal conviction on their records? That could give us some interesting data on exactly where we're doing it wrong (although I know plenty of people who think our prison numbers prove we're doing it right!).
posted by LBJustice at 6:16 PM on November 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


This is great and I'm glad the Economist is doing this.

The Economist has been consistently and harshly critical of the U.S. rate of incarceration, U.S. drug policy, and U.S. sentencing policies for a long time. The conservative, free-market ideology of the magazine lines up perfectly against this sort of heavy-handed big government. Odd that this does not translate to conservatives on the other side of the Atlantic.
posted by three blind mice at 1:28 AM on November 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


In Soviet Union...

Aw fukkit.
posted by mikelieman at 1:32 AM on November 20, 2013




in the comments there are some people saying that the three strikes rule only applies to felonies. and they seem to equate felony crime with violent crime.

I'm a bit confused by that. isn't a felony something that was just "really really bad" based on things like the amount of money or drugs involved, not necessarily that violence was committed?

maybe there can be a nice Facebook meme explaining the difference between felony and misdemeanor. I'm assuming both can involve violence?
posted by sio42 at 6:01 AM on November 20, 2013


maybe there can be a nice Facebook meme explaining the difference between felony and misdemeanor. I'm assuming both can involve violence?

Under Federal law, a felony is any crime that is punished by more than a year behind bars. The states adhere to various different systems, but that's a good rule of thumb. Note that, as you suspect, there is no mention of violence in that, just time in prison. So yes, "felony" doesn't equal "violent," nor even "normally associated with violence" (e.g., drug trafficking) -- for instance, in Missouri, stealing a "United States national flag designed, intended and used for display on buildings or stationary flagstaffs in the open" is a felony (para. 3(3)(f)).
posted by Etrigan at 7:51 AM on November 20, 2013


"LOL poor people. Bleed 'em dry, give 'em nothing." Don't understand why we're lurching backward to Dickensian London.
posted by Mental Wimp at 8:26 AM on November 20, 2013


holy crap Etrigan.

i thought it was WAYYYY more nuanced than that.
that is absolutely insane to me.

i looked up here and it has some subsections about what felonies are. i hadn't looked it up earlier because i thought it would be some big convoluted thing.

does that first section where it's listed by years ("Classification") mean exactly what you said, that it doesn't matter about what's in the rest of the page about violent felonies and such, at a minimum, even on a state level, something is a felony if you could go to jail for at exactly one year or more?

i'm really having a hard time wrapping my head around this.
if this is true, things are way worse than i thought and a lot of comments in this thread make a lot more sense.

i mean, i know we have prison pop issues, but that really really puts it in perspective.
posted by sio42 at 11:17 AM on November 20, 2013


does that first section where it's listed by years ("Classification") mean exactly what you said, that it doesn't matter about what's in the rest of the page about violent felonies and such, at a minimum, even on a state level, something is a felony if you could go to jail for at exactly one year or more?

That only applies to violations of the U.S. Code, which means "federal" crimes, but most states have similar definitions, and a huge criticism of three-strikes laws is that they lump violent and nonviolent felonies together. The major case in this area is Rummel v. Estelle: it was 40 years ago, but William Rummel was sentenced to life imprisonment for three felony convictions that added up to $231.11 and no violence whatsoever.
posted by Etrigan at 11:35 AM on November 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


is there some sort of reliable source somewhere that lists what constitutes felonies in the states with three strikes laws?

thanks for this info btw. really eye opening.
posted by sio42 at 11:40 AM on November 20, 2013


Joan Baez said it

Help us raze, raze the prisons to the ground


'Nother relevant Joan Baez cover (from Phil Ochs):
Show me the prison, show me the jail
Show me the prisoner, whose life has gone stale
And I'll show you a young man,
With so many reasons why
there but for fortune go you or I.
posted by Mental Wimp at 3:04 PM on November 21, 2013


California managed to pass a "release non-violent three-strikers" referendum last election. I wonder what it would take to get other three-strikes states to follow suit.
posted by Hello Dad, I'm in Jail at 9:27 AM on November 24, 2013


Omnivore: The American police state
posted by homunculus at 12:52 PM on December 6, 2013


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