The system of criminal justice doesn’t work too well. A cause of this dysfunction is the notion that criminals can “pay their debt to society,” and then be all better, as if crimes were purchases made on a credit card. Say that a marginal human wielding a bolo knife crawls through a window, burglarizes the house, and gets caught and sentenced to five years. He gets out some time later having “paid his debt”—actually the citizenry have paid $20K a year to keep him fed and comfortable. He is now thought to have been cleansed and ready to make a fresh start.
Not a chance.
As any cop can tell you, career criminals commit almost all crime. When Willy Bill gets caught carrying a television out from someone’s window,, you will find, with the absolute certainty one associates with bankruptcy in a Democratic administration, that he has a rap sheet going back to puberty. Two years after getting out for one offense, he will be arrested for another. Normal, civilized people don’t suddenly think, “Gosh, slow day. I guess I’ll do a little burglary.” Either you don’t do it at all, or it’s all you do.
Whenever I covered a guy who stabbed a woman thirty-seven times while robbing her at an ATM, I knew he would prove to be out on parole for something similar. He always was. Which is why three-strikes-and-you’re-out makes considerable sense, at least for serious crimes: e.g., forcible rape, armed robbery, and ADW, though not for felony shoplifting or peddling grass. You can cage a rattlesnake after it bites someone, but when you let it out, it is still a rattlesnake.
Which brings us to parole and the phoniness of sentencing.
Suppose that a judge gives Willy Bill fifteen years for a bloody robbery. This looks good to the public: Grr, woof, bow-wow. But Willy gets time off for good behavior, and a parole-eligibility date in seven years or next Wednesday, whichever comes first. The sentence he gets isn’t the sentence he serves. It has to do with crowding in prisons and, I strongly suspect, a desire to make it appear to the public that criminals are being punished when they aren’t much.
Then you have Willy Bill and his parole hearing. Parole boards often consist of gullible citizens with no experience of criminal behavior. Further, Willy is a good con man. He does great repentance-speak. He is All Fixed Now. Nobody produces better sincerity than a psychopath who wants out. It’s forty-weight. You could lube a diesel with it. The parole board bites. Three months later he kills a woman.
Jesus is responsible for much of this mayhem. Prisons churn out conversions to Christ like Hershey’s does chocolate kisses. I once spent a week of work days in the Cook County Jail in Chicago when a friend was head of IAD there. He arranged for me to interview prisoners. I heard a common song: “I done wrong. I know I did. But I found Jesus. He my man now. All I want is serve my savior.”
Sure. Any day now. But it convinces parole boards, some of them anyway. When he gets out, whatever he did, he’ll do again. Within weeks, most likely. He’s doesn’tknow how to do anything else. The system rests on the idea that criminals can get better. Mostly they don’t. They can’t.
(Incidentally, if you want a marvelous (I thought, anyway) book about how scams work in the slam, try Games Criminals Play. It’s a hoot.)
Then comes plea-bargaining, a labor-saving device for prosecutors and judges. America is supposed to have trial by jury. It says so in the Constitution we used to have. Actually, something over 90% of cases are pleaded. If ten percent of criminals had a jury trial, the system would stop like a two-dollar watch. Our legal system supposes we are a civilized people, and that such peoples don’t commit a lot of crime. Try that in Detroit, Newark, Camden, Chicago.
Suppose that an urban hairball slingin’ rock on the corner fires seven times at a competitor with a stolen Glock, missing because he has no idea how to shoot. He is arrested for attempting murder, which is exactly what he was attempting. The public defender pleads him down to aggravated assault or malicious jaywalking, or maybe Inappropriate Thought, which is what we pay PDs to do: keep violent felons on the street (which, by the way, they know perfectly well they are doing.). What with time off and a probably stupid parole board that additionally has been told to let people go because the slams are full to bursting, a few years later he’s out and, sure enough, kills….
Then there is drug rehab, a profitable scam that doesn’t work. It is profitable in part because it doesn’t work: a city will pay several times for the rehab of the same addict. Dopers amount to a reusable resource for the rehab racket.
A judge doesn’t want to send an endless stream of crack-heads, scag monkeys, and pill freaks to the slam. There isn’t enough room. Sending them to rehab sounds humanitarian, progressive, and improving. Actually, with very few exceptions, it is useless, as all involved know. I have sat in a police car outside a rehab house in Washington and watched an inmate come out, score, and go back in. The cop I was with did nothing. There was no point in doing anything.
Jury trials are in large part a scam. I don’t have a better idea, but that doesn’t keep them from being scams. To begin with, you are supposed to face an impartial jury. The Foundering Fathers stuck this in so that ordinary citizens wouldn’t be railroaded by kangaroo juries packed with the equivalent of the King’s littermates. It was a perfectly good idea. However, in the racially divided America of today, jurors of another race are unlikely to be impartial. Space aliens would come closer. Think of the passions ignited nationally in the cases of Rodney King, OJ Simpson, and George Zimmerman. The same emotions poison lesser trials that few hear about. Not good.
Another problem is that except in high-dollar cases with alpha-shysters, juries are sometimes composed of people who weren’t smart enough to avoid jury duty. They can resemble the waiting room in a bus station. People with a Macy’s-Basement IQ simply can’t understand what is going on. A woman I know was a juror in a civil trial in Washington in which both sides stipulated that sexual harassment was not involved. Despite this, the jury wanted to give the complainant an award for having been sexually harassed.
Finally, trials are not about truth, justice, and beauty, but about winning. Period. Neither lawyer wants a jury of people who think objectively, as for example twelve physicists. In a rape case, the defense will try to seek a censorious Aunt Polly spinster who will think, “Well, if she went into that awful biker bar in a three-inch miniskirt, she deserves what she got, the trash.” The prosecutor will want a hard-nosed law-and-order type who will think, “If we can’t keep our women safe from this kind of animal, what the hell kind of country are we?”
If that ain’t impartial, I can’t imagine what might be.