Aspects of Crime, Punishment and Profit
By: J. Marlando
I have seen it a few times, the original movie, “Les Miserables” a few times and it was on Turner Classics last night so I watched it again. The movie is based on Victor Hugo’s most genius work written in 1862. The movie I love was made in 1935 starring Frederic March, Charles Laughton and Cedric Hardwicke. Please see if you haven’t, it’s available on DVD.
Most briefly it is about a released convict by the name of Jean Valjean played by Frederic March
Valjean learns a great lesson from this and goes on to become a highly respected mayor of Montruil-surmer after growing a most honest and respectful reputation.
During that time he takes in a young girl and makes her his daughter. All is well until a policeman enters played by Charles Laughton
As a history buff and sometimes social commentator my feathers, in a term, are ruffled each time I see the old movie; it leaves me pondering our laws and lawmakers in the US. A country, I believe, can be judged by its laws and the workings of its legal system. If that is so, we cannot be a country that is free and I will be explaining what I mean by this in the main body of the text. But first, I want to tell you why you, the potential reader, should read this article as most of you are good, ordinary citizens who live your life, pay your bills and have no reason to think much about the law—after all, only people who do wrong, do time, right?
Guess what, our own justice system tells us we, as a country, have so many laws that at least 90% of us have wittingly or unwitting broken them and so we could be sent to prison if law enforcement ever decided to prosecute. Think about only this much…we are a country that boasts being the freest on the planet and we have so many laws that any of us could be arrested, at any time, at the will of some official.
Unless you, or you have a son, daughter, relative or friend that has gone to prison, the last thing on your mind is who is behind bars and who isn’t, but guess what, per capita, the US has the most people locked up than any other country in the world. How can the “freest” nation have the most human beings behind bars and therefore produce the greatest count of les miserables? As one writer put it, “the United States maintains the title of the world’s number one jailer.”
The United States is the last place in the world one would expect to find dictatorship in the guise of justice. The law, however, has unfolded to be a tyrant hidden in the rhetoric of democracy. But why care? if we are honest, good human beings?
We should care because we love America and we want it to stand for its ideals of freedom and humaneness—not only for ourselves and our times but for our children, their children and the positive future of the entire world. And so, I hope you will read the following with a caring heart and mind because I intend to enrage you, make you sad, make you think and make you feel. I hope to do this in order to create….a freer more benevolent country than we have been. In regard to this, I recall as a child growing up I absolutely believed in Superman as the symbol of our country’s spirit
A Brief History
I first began getting interested in the subject of law, crime and punishment when I was hired to write about the famous Crowe case occurring in 1998. Fourteen year old Michael Crowe, along with two of his classmates, was charged with murdering Michael’s sister. The police coerced a confession out of two of the boys after they had failed to fully investigate other potential suspects. As a result, the District Attorney’s office clearly filed false charges to expedite the trial and achieve a speedy prosecution. There had been evidence disregarded if not hidden which would eventually be uncovered by a conscientious public defender which would lead to proving the boys innocent beyond a reasonable doubt.
I read where the court ordered all the boy’s records destroyed but, without a shadow of a doubt, their lives will be negatively affected for as long as they live. In the psychological sense, they will serve a life sentence for something they never did.
Coerced confessions, lackadaisical arrests and hiding evidence to gain prosecution are commonplace across the United States. Just last night the TV show 60 minutes covered the story of Michael Morton who was arrested and sentenced to a Texas prison for murdering his wife. There had absolutely been evidence hidden to gain the prosecution. Michael spent 25 years in prison before the evidence finally surfaced and DNA testing proved his absolute innocence while exposing the real killer who had actually confessed to the vicious crime a quarter century before.
Michael oh his way to prison 25 long agonizing years later
The Law as Dictator
Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The law and law enforcers are not above this egocentricity. For anyone interested, a must read is Zimbardo’s, “The Lucifer Effect.” He’s the social psychologist who set up the Stanford Prison Experiment revealing how having power over others—as prison guards, police, judges and other do—creates cruel behaviors. An apparent example of this occurred at Abu Ghraib’s military prison.
Tyranny, however, will persist as long as the letter of the law takes precedence over the purpose of the law, we will, indeed, have the kind of legal tyranny that Machiavelli
Murdered by the Letter of the Law
Peter McWilliams was an author, poet and publisher who was arrested for growing marijuana plants. He did this because he suffered from AIDS and he got relief from the illegal plants.
McWilliams died in his bathtub choked to death by his own vomit.What happened was he would have vomiting attacks and the marijuana subdued those attacks.
Nothing else did. The California judge, however, forbade him to use marijuana as part of his bail terms. Indeed he would have to have weekly urine tests to prove he wasn’t using or go to prison.
Since his cancer was in remission, had he been able to smoke medical marijuana he would no doubt still be alive or at least have lived a lot longer than he did.
Now then, for the conservative reading this and cheering the judge for staying with the letter of the law, even William F. Buckley, Jr. said this, “Imagine such a spirit ending its life at age 50, just because they wouldn’t let him have a toke. We have to console ourselves with only the comment of the two prosecutors. They said they were ‘saddened’ by Peter McWilliams’ death. Many of us are; by his death and the causes of it.”
The cause of the unnecessary suffering and death of McWilliams was the Machiavellian rule of thumb in our judiciary. The presiding judge demonstrated the ruthlessness of a Machiavellian ruling. And, obviously, giving no regard to McWilliams’ American right to pursue his own happiness.
This brings us to yet another issue: Our Declaration of Independence clearly states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” This was certainly the most vital cornerstone for our forefather’s rejection of England’s dictatorship. Yet, those rights have been transferred to a legal system prohibiting the liberty of the pursuit of happiness under the aspects of consensual crimes. This transfer disregards the “inalienability” of our rights or else the tyranny of consensual crimes could not exist.
Consensual crimes and freedom is an absurd notion in any case since one necessarily negates the other. It is simply nonsense to claim individual freedom and create victimless crimes at the same time. In fact, what an individual does in private—as long as it is nothing coercive or harmful to other, is nobody’s business but his own…in a truly free nation, that is.
Power and Prosecution
A major reason we have become a prison nation begins with mandatory sentencing. Mandatory sentencing necessarily creates a Les Miserables kind of authority that ruined the life of Jean Valjean for stealing a loaf of bread. When a judge cannot consider the motive of a lawbreaker, a Machiavellian principle evolves that remains true to the letter of the law while denying the principle of the law which is—or should be—justice.
It is, for example, a great injustice to imprison anyone for a consensual crime as covered in the above section, yet we have hundreds of thousands of convicts doing many years for simply doing what they wanted to do without harming or victimizing anyone else. Why some are doing long sentences returns us to the ultimate power of the prosecutor.
Prosecutors decide if a person will or will not face criminal charges. This absolute power permits them to use plea bargaining as a great leverage against even a minor lawbreaker. I have heard of more than one case, for example, where the prosecutor has leveraged a petty crime into a major criminal offense at will. For one example, upping a possession charge into a possession with intent to distribute charge based on the cooperation level of the accused. Another example is that I have a friend of mine, a businessman, who was arrested in Texas for false advertising. My friend denied the charges but the prosecutor simply told him. “You can fight this case but if you decide to do that, you will get 25 years. And that’s a long time living away from your family. If you sign a confession right now, we will assure you that you will only serve three years so it is up to you. Either way, you are going to jail.”
My friend, never being in trouble before in his life, felt intimidated and afraid so he decided not to fight in his own defense and signed a confession.
As a result of my friends decision the prosecutor wrapped up another conviction—and convictions, as we will see a little later, means both accolades and…profit for the District Attorney’s office.
What is wrong with the system is not that he (or she) has tremendous powers to decide who and who will not face criminal charges. What is wrong is using that power for the wrong reasons.
To give the reader an idea of what I am talking about, here’s the fundamental way that the Crowe case unfolded:
- There was a vicious murder of a young teenage girl.
- As the FBI suggests, the first suspects are family members.
- Police interrogates the entire family—grandma to father to children.
- Police decide they don’t like the 14 year old son’s attitude and keep him awake for 18 hours “interviewing” him.
- One policeman lies and tell him that his parents think he is guilty.
- Another policeman lies and tells the youngster that he has a demon that comes out at night.
- Another policeman gives the boy a lie detector test and lies to the boy saying that he failed it.
- The boy finally believes that he must have murdered his sister although he can’t remember doing it. He signs a confession.
- The police then coerce the boy’s school chum into signing a confession.
- A third boy refuses to sign but police arrest him anyway as they have enough information from boys 1 and 2.
- The prosecutor receives information from police then charges the boys with murder.
- The judge accepts the prosecutor’s assessment and puts the boys on trial.
We will now backtrack and see how the above unfolded on the system’s side of the process.
1. Policemen who suspects the boys is given accolades for having “a good hunch” or good “police instincts” if the suspicion proves true. The policeman then pursues a confession in the attempt to prove his so-called “hunch” correct. In order to do this a number of truly horrible tricks are used: The torture by not letting the accused sleep…the lying about finding evidence…anything to get the kid to say he did it and prove the cop right.
2. When none of that works, they pull in another police officer to give the boy a lie detector test. This officer lies to the boy showing him lines on the chart saying that indicate that he lied. The boy physically tired and psychologically defeated finally signs a confession.
This policeman is given great accolades and recognition for his “outstanding” job. What he did to acquire the confession is not even questioned.
3. The DA’s office receives the report and the boys are charged with the brutal crime. In the process vital evidence that might vindicate the boys just happens to get lost in the evidence room. The prosecutor gets praise and accolades from the District Attorney for getting a conviction and the D.A. gets accolades and usually favorable budget adjustments and other perks from the mayor.
The media gives praise to the police, the mayor and the D.A. for a wonderful job of rapidly closing a murder case.
The general public applauds the fine job that the law enforcers have done and supports the police, the mayor and the D.A. Everyone is happy except for the three boys who are in lockup because the police and the D.A.’s office had not done their jobs right, much less conscientiously.
Why? The major reason is that the police are interested in making arrests more than they are interested in arresting the right person…the District Attorney is more interested in winning cases than seeking justice for the accused.
This is not an isolated case. False arrests, plea bargaining and coerced confessions occur all over the country. A major reason for this is that the justice and law enforcement systems focus is on budgets, quotas and ranking. Not justice and this alone is the rub.
As a result, in our country 1 in every 31 adults are under some kind of correctional control. And, since the cornerstone of Americanism is said to be individual freedom we are compelled to ask, how can a country boasting freedom have 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prisoners? Today, there are over 2 million people incarcerated in the US, even more than Russia.
Amidst that large count of imprisoned people there are a number of innocent people locked up. The police, District Attorney’s and judges’ say that yes, this happens but that the numbers are so small that they hardly count. The professor of Justice at Wayne State University, Marvin Salman, however, tells us a different story. He offers that around 2,000 innocent people are convicted…every year.
The system in overview is not only a chalice for corruption but…simple negligence.
Aspects of Crime, Punishment and Profit
I will begin this section with a brief overview of capitalism. Capitalism seems to be the best system in the world…potentially. I say “potentially” because it now maintains a Darwinistic factor that corrupts human motivation or, in other worlds, it creates, in some, the Gordon Gekko syndrome. Perhaps you remember the Oliver Stone directed movie, Wall Street? Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglas, declares that, “Greed is good.” Well, greed is not good as it necessarily lacks empathy and compassion. Capitalism will never be perfected until it includes these two qualities in its structure.
When we think of “greed” we can easily apply it to the criminal evil doer: The thief…the gangbanger…the gangster…the dope dealer and so forth. And this of course is true—those who commit crimes against other human beings are indeed Darwinistic in their human action. But “greed” and its ramification do not only belong to individuals. Let us not forget instances such as the Enron scandals who took the biggest bankruptcy in US history--$31 billion! They had been so greedy that they lied to their own investors by falsifying reports that revealed loans as revenue. But other companies that have been, Jeffery Reiman puts it, “touched by financial scandal” includes: Global Crossing, Tyco, Xerox, Adelphia, K-Mart, AOL-Time Warner and the list continues into banking such as J.P. Morgan Chase. The list goes on so self-serving greed does not only belong to the individuals locked behind prison walls or are out sticking up convenient stores, it can and does belong to some businesses, bureaucracies and private enterprises like funeral homes and other industries. In fact, the callousness of greed belongs to the prison system itself.
When we talk about rehabilitation, this must apply to the US prison systems before we can reasonably talk about prisoner reform.
Greed is also a lot of what is wrong with our entire judiciary and law enforcement systems. As long as arrests provide personal glory (and often confiscations of money and property), confessions gain accolades and citations while prosecutions gain prestige and budgetary perks, we will continue to have a self-serving arrogance in our legal system.
What I suggest is the biggest disgrace to our nation is the private, for-profit prisons where those at the top literally get wealthy by keeping beds filled with the unfortunate. In 2010 alone two of the biggest privatized prisons gained revenue of nearly $3 billion dollars. As I understand it President Geroge Bush (the first) has, in the past, invested in this inhumane industry housing les miserables; the private prison system.
As for state and federal prisons, we already know they do not and have never worked to rehabilitate the criminal but rather have served as a campus for learning the better techniques of crime. A major problem in that all prison systems are still maintaining a Dark Age mentality; the ideas of crime and…punishment!
Captured criminals minor and major have always been at the mercy of the moralist who has tortured him, horsewhipped him, isolated him and hanged him for his offenses. Today’s prisons are a mere extension of the old dungeons where human beings were kept chained for their crimes and/or their defiance toward the law.
This reminds us that just because something is against the law doesn’t make it a crime or even wrong. There is nothing wrong with jaywalking for example. Jaywalking is merely against the law. This applies to countless things that people do from growing illegal herbs to drinking beer on their front porches; prostitution is private enterprise, not a criminal act except for the law that deems it so. There is nothing wrong with my raising chickens in my backyard but there may be ordinances or zoning laws that make it illegal. In this regard, it is impossible to intellectually justify a law such as not being able to own a dog without a license or having a permit to build something on my own property. After all, it is as Peter McWilliams says, “Laws against Consensual Activities are Opposed to the Principles of Private Property, Free Enterprise, Capitalism, and the Open Market, the idea of private property encompasses the idea that we can do with our property as we see fit—use it, sell it, trade it, give it, and, yes, even destroy it. As long as it doesn’t infringe on the person or property of another, it ain’t no governments business if we do.”
With the above in mind we must ask, has the government and law-makers abandoned the Fourth Amendment?
There is no denying of course that there are those dangerous and destructive individuals who need to be incarcerated but what about rehabilitation? We’ll talk about that next.
Analyzing the Incarcerated Criminal
I have discussed the issues of this narrative with many of my friends and colleagues over the years and the general consensus from them is that yes, conditions of the child’s life does effect the child’s worldview but when the child reaches adulthood his honesty or dishonesty depends on character alone.
At first this sounds like a reasonable analysis but it is generally made by people who have had a normal childhood, with affectionate or at least caring parents. That is the “conditions” of their past are grounded in rational behaviorism. They have no idea what it would be like to be raised by crack head parents, neglectful parents or uncaring parents; to feel abandoned in a world of others and therefore unloved and so unwanted.
While there are exceptions our prisons are overflowing with convicts who were raised in unloving and non-nurturing environments. And no matter who might deny it, we all carry the child we once were within and he (or she) responds to a great many of our adult experiences. Throwing tantrums, rebelling against doing something we don’t feel like doing, self-pitying because we can’t have something we want are all immature signals of our childhood selves.
This is only a minor problem compared to real mental health problems that nearly 300,000 prison and jail inmates are known to have. Indeed, the Bureau of Justice Statistic tells us that more than half of all prison and state inmates report mental health problems such as major depression, mania and psychotic disorders. (I am convinced that psychopathy is self-induced from unbearable trauma and can be treaded). The point here however is at least 300,000 inmates should NOT be incarcerated in prison environments where cruelty such as rape and solitary confinement prevail but in hospitals where those illnesses can be observed and treated as a great many were before the 1980s. And anyway, how disgraceful is it for a country as wealthy as ours not to support mental and physical health facilities for the very poor and/or for those incapable of taking care of themselves?
When we look at the above, we cannot help but realize that mandatory and stiff sentencing supports the prison industries state, federal and private, As Jeffrey Reiman put it: “The rich get richer and the poor get prison.”
The Criminal and Society
The law not only creates stringent rules of conduct for individual citizens but leans heavily on “punishment” for anyone who doesn’t abide by them. Indeed, freedom under the law is like saying you’re letting your pooch, tethered to a leash, run free. The US lawmakers ought to concentrate on laws that give us greater liberty as opposed to great limitations and confinements. The idea of our forefathers was that in the United States people would be free to do whatever they wanted to do as long as it didn’t infringe on someone else’s freedom.
This should be the only concern of the Supreme Court. As a quick aside, in 1857 the Supreme Court made the ruling that slaves were property and therefore not human beings. How arrogant was that?
Anyway, not every inmate is crazy, a mad-dog killer or habitual thief—many have broken the law and/or committed a crime and, as said, paid their debt to society and have been released. However, the justice department does nothing to help them recapture positive, productive lives but instead quite the opposite. For example, it is like Jeremy Travis tells us: that offenders, “can be denied public housing, welfare benefits, the mobility necessary to access jobs that require driving, child support, parental rights, the ability to obtain education” and even to live in some locations that they can afford because they are branded as felons.
What I am getting at in the above, while it is no secret that prisons are not at all motivated to rehabilitate—and never have been—the law carries the punishment forward by creating hardships that make it nearly impossible for the ex-con to reestablish a life and, in a term, start over. And again, we see the aspects of les miserables unfolding in our nation: The concept that once a criminal always a criminal and this also applies to those who have done time but committed no crime.
I would guess that ex-cons returning to prison for second terms would drop by at least 40% if not much more if we had programs to assist the felon to find work, to have housing and the essentials it takes to survive in the free world. This SHOULD include lifting his or her felon status off the books at least after ten years of good citizenry and thus staying out of trouble.
As it is now, every person who has served prison time is branded the evil-doer for life.
Changing Laws and Reducing Crime
We also know that if “drugs” were made legal and taxed crime rates would probably fall in half and there would be official records of all distributors and users; the stuff would be pure and truly dangerous drugs like crack would go away. The fear that people who are NOT using now would run down to the drug store and get hooked is nonsense. Anyway, to shorten a very long story drugs have become a world economy and anyway, in the US, the profiting through fines, confiscations and keeping prison beds filled may well justify keeping the legal system just as it is. For example, can you imagine the unemployment that would occur if crime was suddenly cut in half or how quickly the prisons-for-profit would fold?
With the above aside, however, if we truly want to reduce crime and save people from terrible lives of incarceration or worse, we need to stop pointing the holier-than-thou finger with all the old nonsense about how the criminal is responsible for his own actions and crime is the result of character and all the other arrogant observations that many Americans make.
Most crime is the result of financial and emotional poverty. We know enough about psychology today to know that the lack of a loving, caring childhood environment tends to create insensitivity and deeply rooted anger and resentments as that child grows up. Add police and other authority profiling the poor as probable lawbreakers and the entire system unwittingly works to increase crime as opposed to decreasing it.
We have had sex education in schools for a great many decades and to no avail. What we need to do is include a course in responsible relationships and parenting. Few people from all financial backgrounds know how to be married much less those adults who were raised in dysfunctional families. This should be made a high priority of the educational system.
As sociologists know, the child believes that his parents’ world is the world. Our government wastes enough capital to enhance the ghettoes and barrios turning them into decent, productive areas. And yes, I’ve heard the comments that says, “Even if government made the projects beautiful and gave the streets a facelift, those kind of people would have it right back to trash in no time. They love living the way they do or they’d do something about it.” This pomposity merely serves to clear the conscience of those who look down on the deprived, the uneducated, the hungry and wearied. While there are a few dopers, no hopers, boozers and losers among the poor as there are amidst all classes of people, not every poor person fits the profile. Indeed, amidst the very poor are decent human beings who feel pain, desire, fear, joy and sadness just like everyone else but these topics are far too complicated to fully go into here. I will, however, leave the reader with this thought— poverty is inherited just as wealth is. Something to contemplate!
There is nothing…nothing wrong with giving people a hand up and if that takes a hand out that’s just fine too. It is only mythology that makes generosity a social blemish and weakness. As for welfare—it is typically just enough to keep poverty affordable but never enough to rise the recipient above his or her impoverished conditions. And, the old time declaration that says anyone who wants to work can squeeze out a living for himself was applicable only when labor was king. This is 2013 folks…not 1913.
What we need to acknowledge is that poverty—the breeding ground for crime—is primarily the result of the system and not the entire fault of the people living it its conditions. This is partially due to how the wealth is distributed. For example, the historian Howard Zinn reports that only a few decades ago, “while the poor were taking cuts, the salary of the chairman of Exxon was being raised to $830,000 a year and that of the chairman of Mobil Oil to over a million a year. That year, while Exxon’s net income rose to 56 percent to more than $4 billion, three thousand small independent gasoline stations went out of business/” This, is the system obviously working in favor of the rich. In fact
We will always have poor and rich of course but we do not have to have the gap between them so wide that third-world conditions emerge for the many. No one born before 1965 would have dreamed that one day we Americans would see the homeless wondering about the streets with some eating out of garbage cans. The system is directly responsible for those poor people and their wretched conditions in the U.S.A.
The above does not claim to solve all the problems that lead to more crime but certainly there are a few crumbs of wisdom here that hopefully will give authority a new view and an honest desire to stand tall for truth, justice and (make those two commodities) the American way,
The government, like an individual, can put the profit motive above the people motive, empowering itself as the major objective of its functions. As a result, egocentricity and center-ism prevails in the very house that was designed to preserve the inalienable rights of the people among which is the right to pursue one’s own happiness.
Instead we have become the prison nation of the world. And, we no doubt, have more laws, ordinances and regulations than perhaps any other place on the planet. We are, as David Garland would say, a “culture of control” and yet we boast being the freest nation on earth.
Well, we were established to be a free people! Certainly this does not mean a people without laws and law enforcement since both are necessary to maintain an orderly, safe environment. But the motive of law in America must be liberty and not license; of opportunity and not oppression and of justice and not jurisdiction.
I believe that these changes alone would return our country to being the light in the window for the rest of the world. It is, however, as Thomas Jefferson said: “Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves are its only safe depositories. As for the penal system—it is obviously obsolete, often doing far more harm than good. I believe that science and medicine will one day change this but those changes will be a long time in coming.
References and suggested further reading
Garland, David * The Culture of Control * The University of Chicago Press
EDs: Marc Mauer and Meda Chesney-Lind * Invisible Punishment *The New York Press
McWilliams * Ain’t Nobody’s Business If You Do * Prelude Press
Reiman, Jeffrey * The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison * Pearson
Zimbardo, Philip * The Lucifer Effect * Random House
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