By Alex Jenkins
There has been a lot of discussion lately about the two-tiered system of justice in the U.S. There is one set of standards for wealthy white people, and there is another standard for the poor and for people of color. We were reminded of this last month when details emerged about Robert H. Richards IV, the wealthy heir to the Du Pont family fortune who was spared jail time after being found guilty of raping his three-year-old daughter. A month before that, we were all outraged by the case of Ethan Couch, a 16-year old Texas boy, who killed four motorists while on a drunken joyride in 2013. Instead of being sent to jail, Couch was sentenced to attend a residential treatment facility, where the rehabilitation methods included mixed martial arts lessons and horseback riding.
These cases enraged the public and prompted demands for harsher sentencing. In the case of Ethan Couch, my own personal outrage was heightened by the fact that, just one year earlier, the judge in his case, Jean Boyd, had sentenced a 14-year old black boy to 10 years in juvenile detention for punching a man, causing him to hit his head on the pavement. The victim in that case would ultimately succumb to his injuries, but his death was clearly unintended and, arguably, incidental. The fact that this black boy’s case made no headlines, while Ethan Boyd’s case became a national scandal, speaks to the extent to which the nation is consumed by its thirst for punishment.
I share the sentiment that both Couch and Richards should have been incarcerated for what they did. But I fear that when privileged Americans call for harsh sentences, they simply throw out numbers that sound reasonable based on prior punishments for similar crimes. But for the majority of Americans, who are not poor and who enjoy a certain amount of economic and racial privilege, they have the luxury of knowing that they will likely never to serve one of those sentences. Consequently, the sentences that get handed down remain abstract numbers in their collective consciousness. Seldom do we stop to consider that young men and boys are being consigned to spend 10 years (three thousand, six hundred and fifty-two days) in a cage for non-violent crimes like drug possession and shoplifting.
Unfortunately, most lawmakers fall in that category of people who will never experience the legal system from the other side, which is why laws that are widely known to be disproportionately punitive (sentencing laws for crack cocaine are a good example) have been so slow to change. From the bubble of their legal ivory towers, judges hand out years in prison as though it were Halloween candy, completely detached from the reality that those numbers represent years of someone’s life that will be taken forever.
When Michelle Knight, Gina DeJesus and Amanda Berry were rescued in 2013 after being forcibly imprisoned and tortured for 10 years in the basement of their captor, the nation was horrified at the notion of three innocent (mostly) white young girls being held captive for such an agonizingly long period. Yet similar fates are routinely assigned to innocent men and women by the penal system and seldom is there any protest.
Some may accuse me of being callous for comparing being locked up in the basement of a killer, with being locked up in a state penitentiary. But most people have no idea how bad prison can actually be. More and more, prisons rely on solitary confinement to house prisoners who are at risk of attack or to further punish prisoners who’ve committed crimes in prison. A 2005 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that more than 81 622 inmates were being held in “restricted housing”. This is despite the fact that solitary confinement is considered to be a form a psychological torture when enforced continuously for more than a few weeks.
In California, where they have an archaic “three-strikes” system, people are routinely sentenced to decades-long prison terms for crimes as trivial as stealing socks from the store. Reading stories like this highlights the irony of American’s propensity for self-righteousness when admonishing the penal systems of foreign countries. I recall back in the early 90’s an 18-year old American named Michael P. Fay was convicted of theft and vandalism while living with his mother and stepfather in Singapore. Fay was sentenced to several months in jail and six lashes with a cane, which was standard punishment in Singapore. Americans were up in arms, and President Clinton intervened to ask for leniency. Eventually the sentence was reduced to four lashes and four months in jail. At the time, I shared the mainstream view that caning was barbaric and had no place in a civilized society. But looking back, caning seems much more civilized than a ten-year prison sentence, and if given the choice, I’d gladly opt for caning over spending years in a cage.
One of the primary criticisms of the death penalty is that it is irreversible. But that’s also true of all prison time. When you put someone is a cage for years at a time, you are depriving them of a significant chunk of their life that they will never get back. When a society routinely and casually exacts this punishment, even for victimless crimes like drug possession, I can’t think of what could be more uncivilized than that.