At its worst, America’s criminal justice system represents the place where racism, greed and corruption intersect. At its best, it is inherently flawed, unjust, and unreliable, and little better than its worst.
The engine that drives this injustice system is known as the prison industrial complex. It is the theater in which the nation’s foremost method of social control-and a failed method at that-plays itself out to the detriment of society. Recent events help to underscore just how bad things are:
* First, two Pennsylvania judges were recently convicted for receiving $2.6 million in cash to send 5,000 juveniles, many first-time offenders, to two private detention centers. One judge secured the contracts for the companies, while the other judge filled up the facilities with warm bodies.
* Meanwhile, Judge Sharon Keller, presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, that state’s highest criminal court, is in a heap of trouble. The State Commission on Judicial Conduct initiated impeachment proceedings against Keller for incompetence, violating her duties as a judge and casting public discredit on the court. Now for a state such as Texas, whose justice system boasts an already pitifully low standard of integrity, with defense attorneys allowed to fall asleep during their client’s trial, this is no small potatoes. What did this self-described pro-prosecution judge do? Well, she refused to keep the court open after 5pm when she knew Michael Richard, a death row inmate, sought a last-minute appeal challenging the constitutionality of his punishment (lethal injection). The inmate was unable to file an appeal and was executed.
Also, Keller rejected a new trial for Roy Criner, a mentally retarded man convicted of rape and murder, even though DNA evidence showed that he did not rape the victim. “We can’t give new trials to everyone who establishes, after conviction, that they might be innocent,” Judge Keller said. “We would have no finality in the criminal justice system, and finality is important. When witnesses testify, and when jurors return a verdict, they need to know that they can’t come back later and change their minds.”
* Finally, a three-judge federal panel recently ruled that California’s state prisons must reduce their inmate population by one-third, or about 57,000 prisoners. The judges found that the level of overcrowding in the state institutions deprives the inmates of adequate healthcare and is unconstitutional.
By itself, any one of these stories shocks the conscience. We would hope that these sordid tales are the exception to the rule. However, these cases reflect a dysfunctional system that is functioning as designed by a dysfunctional society. Allow me to demystify the prison industrial complex and identify the threads that connect the crooked judges in Pennsylvania and Texas, and overcrowded prisons in California.