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Willie James Sauls is unlikely to see the outside of a prison. Last fall a court in the state of Texas sentenced this 37-year-old man to 45 years in jail. His crime: he snatched the purse from an old woman.
In Norway, meanwhile, a court sentenced Anders Behring Breivik, a right-wing racist who slaughtered 77 people, mostly teenagers, and injured several hundred, to 21 years in prison, with an option for that detention to be extended by five-year increments if he is determined to be still dangerous. Otherwise, the 32-year-old, if considered rehabilitated, could be released at the age of 53.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, Germany was rocked by killings committed by a radical left group called the Red Army Faction. Its members killed over 30 people, including prosecutors and industrialists. Eventually its leaders were caught and convicted, but by 2007, almost a decade after the Red Army Faction had announced its own dissolution, those still in prison were pardoned by the country’s president.
It is beyond inconceivable to imagine a US president, governor or even a judge, releasing a prisoner from a US jail who had committed the kind of offenses committed by either Breivik or members of Germany’s Red Army Faction. It is, in fact, hard to imagine any political leader in the US pardoning purse-snatcher Willie James.
This is, after all, a country that hounded a 26-year-old internet activist, Aaron Swartz, into committing suicide, after a federal prosecutor threatened him with 35 years in jail — this for the heinous crime of copyright violation (in a protest action he had publicly hacked an MIT server and downloaded hundreds of academic papers which a private contractor wanted to charge for!).
Right-wing Americans love to call the US a “nanny state,” claiming that the federal government is always trying to pass laws regulating people’s lives. What the US really is, though, is a “puni-state” — a nation that thrives on vengeance and retribution, and that rejects the whole notion of rehabilitation or character change.
How else to explain the prosecutorial passion for charging absurdly youthful offenders as adults?
In 2011, a Pennsylvania judge agreed with a prosecutor’s request to try Jordan Brown, an 11-year old boy, as an adult, because ahead of the trial, he “refused to admit his guilt” in the shooting death of his father’s pregnant fiancee. While Brown became the youngest kid in the world to be facing a potential sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole, he would not be unusual in the state of Pennsylvania, which leads the US — itself a country that leads the world in such prosecutions of children as adults — in having an astonishing 450 people serving life terms in prison with no opportunity for parole who were sentenced as adults for acts they committed as children.
One of the fundamental realities about children is that they grow up, and generally, if given a modicum of love and attention, they grow up to be more mature than they were as kids.
That doesn’t compute in the US, where what you did is all that matters to the average citizen, apparently. Some 40 of the 50 states allow children to be tried as adults in the United States, making it a pariah among nations in its brutishnish and barbarism.
Politicians — Democrat and Republican — campaign on “get-tough-on-crime platforms which have also made the US the most locked-up society in the world, outstripping even police states like China, which despite being almost four times the population of the US, has fewer people behind bars.
In the US, 2.3 million people are in prison, but another 4.9 million are out of jail but still on parole or probation, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, meaning they’ve been in prison already, and are still under the control of prison and police authorities. That’s over 3 percent of the US population, counting kids and old people. We lock people up at six times the rate, relative to population, of the average for all industrialized nations. Our lock-up rate is five times Britain’s, nine times Germany’s and 12 times Japan’s, yet we have crime rates far in excess of those more enlightened countries.
America has turned everything in to a crime. We get locked up for actions that rarely lead to prison in other modern societies — things like writing bad checks or using recreational drugs…or purse snatching. And US prison sentences are much longer than sentences for the same crimes in other more enlightened countries. Take burglaries. In the US, the average sentence for a burglary is 16 months — almost a year and a half. In Canada, it’s five months, and in England, seven months. Of course, we stand out too as having one of the busiest execution programs in the world, trumped only by China and Iran, two countries that are not particularly laudable for the quality of their justice systems.
Of course, the US justice system, if it can even be called that these days, is also rife with racism. The BJS reports that although blacks do not commit crimes at a rate significantly different from whites, they account for 39.4% of the US prison population, while accounting for only 13.1% of the general population. Hispanics, who account for 20.6% of the prison population nationally, represent only 16.3% of the population. Another way of looking at things: In 2010 black non-Hispanic males were incarcerated at the rate of 4,347 inmates per 100,000 in the US. White males were incarcerated at the rate of 678 inmates per 100,000. Hispanic males were incarcerated at the rate of 1,755 inmates per 100,000 U.S.
We’ve all heard it. Everytime someone does something and it makes the news, the response you hear in conversation is “They should lock ‘em up!” Rarely does the notion creep in that a criminal suspect is sick, needs psychiatric help or needs addiction treatment. Nor is poverty ever mentioned as a cause for some crime. In America, we are supposed to hunker down and endure our fate if we have no job, even if that means our kids have nothing to eat.
In Mississippi, a news story recently reported that a young boy had been sent to reform school because he came to school with his sneakers painted black instead of wearing required black school uniform shoes. It didn’t matter that his mother came in and explained that they had no money for the mandated leather shoes, so she had tried to conform by painting his sneakers.
In 1997, a homeless man in California named Gergory Taylor was sentenced to 25 years to life(!) for breaking into a church kitchen and trying to steal a loaf of bread. After 13 years behind bars, a judge reduced his sentence to time served and let him out. The initial outlandish sentence, and the outrageous amount of time he did serve until his release was the result of that state’s “three strikes and you’re out” law, which says if you commit a third offense after already having been convicted twice of crimes, you get the 25-to-life sentence, regardless of the crimes involved. Judges are allowed no discression. In Taylor’s case, his first crime had been stealing a woman’s purse, and his second had been attempted robbery. Neither of those prior crimes had involved any violence. No matter. It was his third “strike.”
The nation’s criminal code keeps getting bigger each year, too, as charlatans in elected office at the local, state and federal level keep piling on new crimes to punish.
Louisiana State University Law Professor John S Baker, Jr., writing in 2004 in a publication called The Federalist Society, noted that as of 2003, there were 4000 criminal offenses carrying criminal penalties listed in the US Criminal Code. That, he said, was an increase of more than 1300 offenses over 1980. (In general, he notes that many more crimes are added to the list in election years than in non-election years.) The Heritage Foundation reports that the number of federal crimes had grown by another 450 to a total of 4450 by 2007.
Prosecutors for federal crimes often don’t even need to prove intent to commit a crime. Thus, for example, prosecutors have argued, with some success, that a person can be convicted of aiding and supporting terrorism under the post 2001 anti-terrorism laws, for innocently donating to a charitable organization that, while itself not involved in funding terrorism, might have sent some of its funds onward to some second organization totally unknown to the initial donor, which did contribute to a terrorist organization. Incredible? Well, how about the father and son who went on an innocent dig on federal land to look for Indian arrowheads — something that used to be considered a fun hobby –and who were arrested in Idaho by federal authorities under a new law that made it a felony to dig on what was an unmarked archeological site. The 68-year-old Eddie Anderson, a retired logger, and his son ended up pleading guilty and getting slapped with a one-year probation sentence and a $1500 fine each. The joke is that the National Park stores generall sell arrowheads, all of which, if they are real, were “dug” from what by definition would be archeological sites.
At some point, and we passed it a long, long time ago, this punitive obsession in America has made the US not a “land of the free,” but a land of the intimidated.
Everytime I’m driving and I see a police car behind me, I expect to be pulled over. Not because I’m doing anything wrong, but because increasingly, that’s what police do. Recently, I was going shopping with my wife. We saw two cops outside of a squad car talking to a couple of kids by their car, in what clearly was some kind of incident. I wanted to park in a space two cars away. “Don’t go near the police,” she said. “I don’t want to go near them. Something could happen.”
Sadly, she’s right. It’s like that these days. I might have felt compelled to say something, which could have gotten me busted.
And remember, as you think about all this, the the top law enforcement official in the country, Attorney General Eric Holder, just told Congress that he had no intention of seeking criminal indictments against the nation’s top bankers, despite a wide-spread conviction that they are all guilty of the most massive fraud and theft in the history of the country, because he says such prosecutions could “destabilize” the nation’s financial system. So they skate while Willie James rots in prison the rest of his life.
Welcome to the United Police States of America.
Dave Lindorff is a founder of This Can’t Be Happening and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition. He lives in Philadelphia.