American Justice System: Part 1
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.Preamble to the United States Constitution
The Constitution (1789) and Bill of Rights (1791) were written for a small fraction of the American population upon their creation: white, male, wealthy, powerful, landowners and politicians. From the inception of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, there has been a constant struggle for immigrants, poor and uneducated whites, women, minorities, African Americans and American Indians, to receive the same rights as what the founders sought for wealthy, powerful, white men.
Wars and sociopolitical movements such as the Civil War, Women’s Suffrage of the 1920s, and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, among others, resulted in changes to society and Amendments to the Constitution to expand rights to all citizens; but not yet ubiquitous for every member of the American population.
There still exists in the United States- the wealthiest, most powerful, and most technologically advanced free democratic society that the world has ever known- a tiered social, economic, political, and environmental system that punishes the poor for lack of material wealth and consumption, which stand as culturally ascribed American values that define and categorize the population by how much finite resources and possessions they own, rather than defining individuals by the quality of their character and ideals.
A society and culture built around the diffusion of ideas represent a powerful tool in the fight against this material consumption and acquisition of finite wealth and resources. While powerful corporations and established institutions control these finite resources as a means of accumulating power to hold over the lower levels of the American socioeconomic hierarchy, established, institution-threatening ideas come from all levels society and possess the power to unseat and upend the material consumption system that continues to define the United States today.
American Justice System
The grips and seams of American sociopolitical culture appear as if the underlying foundation of our nation is crumbling under the weight, burden, and rhetoric of our countries past ideological and racist history, in the face of today’s knowledge and the spread of technology to those minorities previously denied these rights. The greater our overall understanding as American citizens of our nations history and the path that has brought us to our current position, the greater chance each of us possesses to address our mistakes, learn from them, make the necessary changes to prevent the mistakes from occurring again and, in the process, expand our conscious understanding of the world and knowledge of the diverse group of people that surround us.
This understanding confronts few issues as convoluted as the classification of, and debate around, the American criminal justice system and the difficulty in determining how to punish and rehabilitate those that have broken one of the many arbitrary laws perpetuated from an, oftentimes, overreaching federal government that has come to treat incarceration as the answer to every infringement and challenge- whether severe or insignificant- to the governments codes of proper, obedient conduct in a civil society.
The current United States government and American society-at-large take an approach to crime, incarceration, and criminal justice similar to that of a child chastised by his/her parents to clean up their room: Rather than accept the parents demand to clean up the room by putting in the necessary thought to address why the room is filthy and the effort to dispel the trash, the child (government) thinks of ways to maneuver around the actual work; so, to save time and effort, the child decides to sweep all of the trash, dirty clothes and old food into the closet, closes the door, ignores the problem and pretends that the room as a whole entity (society) is in a better state than previously found; for the moment, the problem with the filth and trash appears to have left the room (society), never to be worried about again; until the parents (American citizens) open the door to the closet at a later time to find the stinky clothes, moldy food, months/years old trash (prison sentences) and the room left worse off than before, with the potential of what comes out of the closet to spread and infect others after being locked up in the darkness and confines of such a small space for an extended period of time.
The purpose of prison and incarceration is to punish, rehabilitate, and to prevent recidivism (the tendency for a convicted criminal to re-offend) in crime that has already occurred. But this method of criminal justice does little in preventing crime that has yet to occur as long as the external political, economic, cultural, educational, and social environment remains the same, which may encourage that criminal behavior to occur once again.
Like most American social and political policies, we take an approach to criminal justice that fails to strike at root of the problem in order to hack at the regenerative branches, which provide private corporations, as well as the federal government, with a steady stream of profit by capturing and locking up human beings without ever really attempting to solve and prevent crime from occurring in the future.
The U.S. government continues to push financially lucrative political policies that ignore the reason for our societies suffering and crime problem, electing instead to prop up the prison industrial complex (the profit-generating criminal justice machine) and the expansion of the federal government to impede further into the lives, freedom, and rights of American citizens, especially minorities of color.
If the government was in the business of crime prevention and rehabilitation, they would favor policies that focus on education and poverty- two fundamental issues directly correlated with the rate and likelihood of crime- by decreasing the level of economic inequality that has expanded over the past 50 years, which is greater than at any point in our nations history.
The social and political upheaval occurring in the United States today comes down to a marginalized minority (people of color) gaining rights and privileges that were denied them in the past (by the wealthy, white, land and capital owner class). The more ground that the marginalized minorities gain towards social progress, Constitutional rights, and integration into American society, the greater the feeling that the previously more dominant minority of poor, uneducated whites, feels that they are losing their own rights. This conflict between poor minorities and poor whites is ramped up by a federal government that continues to support draconian criminal justice and economic policies that prop up old industries and corporations, especially during a time of economic recovery, after a recession- which the government exacerbated by protecting and profiting off of corporations- that wiped out trillions of dollars in savings and wealth from the American economy.
Rather than admit their corrupt failure, politicians and the mainstream media frame the narrative around class/race warfare in order to turn the poor whites against the poor minorities, as this conjures up a visceral and palpable reaction amongst the ideologically and demographically expansive population, and distracts the country from confronting the policies that lead to the recession in the first place. This sociopolitical distraction represents a common tactic that the United States government has used throughout our nation’s history whenever the veneer of power, control, and authority begins to fade from its greedy and corrupt actions.
Slavery and the Civil War
Poor, uneducated, white American citizens are more likely to accept the lies and incendiary propaganda from politicians and the mainstream media due to our nation’s history of subjugation and institutionalized racism, which stems from our past support of slavery. But after the Civil War was fought in order to keep the fracturing United States, united, with the abolition of slavery; consolations were provided to please both the Union and Confederate sides with amendments to the Constitution, in particular, the Thirteenth Amendment, which states:
Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. Section
Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.Amendment XIII. December 6, 1865.
The Thirteenth Amendment represents the first of three Reconstruction Amendments following the American Civil War and stands as the first mention of slavery within the Constitution. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1862 declared slaves in Southern states as free, but the Constitution at the time prevented the proclamation from going into full effect since the Fifth Amendment classified slaves as property, not as individuals with separate rights, which is why the Civil War was necessary to free the four million slaves at the start of the war (1/8th of U.S. population at the time).
The key declaration, ‘except as punishment for a crime,’ stands as a loophole within the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which paved the way for modern mass incarceration in our society today as a means of contracting slave labor while still adhering to a thinly veiled support for African American civil rights. The slow, arduous process of obtaining greater civil rights for African Americans and other minorities has transitioned from the outlook of these classes as slaves before the Civil War; as separate but equal during the Jim Crow segregation era; to the current view within the United States of African Americans, immigrants and minorities as criminals. As our country evolves from our ignorant and racist past, new ways of classifying minorities as second class citizens are adopted by the government and the dominator class in order protect the structure and hierarchy of power and also perpetuate the myth of racial superiority.
After the end of the Civil War and the implementation of the Reconstruction Amendments to grant African Americans with Constitutional rights, racist ‘Slave Codes’ were abolished and replaced with the slightly less racist, ‘Black Codes,’ which white Southern states, and some Northern states, adopted in order to deny certain rights and privileges to African Americans. These Black Codes had the intent and purpose of restricting African Americans’ basic freedoms in order for the wealthy, white landowner class to maintain a certain level of control and power.
African Americans could be captured, convicted, and punished as criminals for actions as insignificant as walking without a purpose, loitering or walking at night; vagrancy; inability to pay debts; unlawful assembly (even during worship at church); interracial relationships; violation of slave-like labor contracts; possession of firearms; making and selling liquor; selling agricultural produce without written permission from an employer; practicing an occupation other than servant or farmer without holding a court-ordered license, among other racist rules.
These codes prevented African Americans the right to public places; restricted their right to own property; to buy and lease land; to conduct business; prevented them from testifying in court against whites; denied them their right to receive a public education and their right to vote (newly established in the Fifteenth Amendment); and established the pathway towards Convict Leasing, a system which allowed convicted criminals to be bought and sold to private corporations within the steel, coal, oil, railroad, logging, and other dangerous industries that used poor, uneducated minorities as a form of free prison labor, which further incentivized the arresting and imprisonment of these racial classes.
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.Amendment VI. December 15, 1791.
Court System Process
The American court system has evolved over many generations and through much trial and error to give us our current judicial branch of government, which covers a vast range of criminal and civil topics within three levels of courts that determine cases based off of their severity and the individual challenges each case imposes upon the Constitution- the highest law of the land.
The first level of the judicial system deals with cases at the District Court level, which consists of approximately 94 courts spread across the United States; the next level is known as the Circuit Court (Appeals Court), which consists of 13 courts that hear cases that are granted an appeal after the case goes through District Court, and are divided according to their regional location within the United States; the highest court is the United States Supreme Court, which hears relatively few cases that pass from the District Court to the Appeals Court. If the nine justices at the Supreme Court feel that the verdict at the Appeals Court may be reversed, they will accept the case and hear arguments presented at a specified time and date.
Courts are divided between the federal and state level, with court cases at the federal level determined by whether or not a particular case belongs to the jurisdiction of one state, or crosses over into multiple states, which the federal court would consider under its jurisdiction.
The beginning of a criminal court case starts with the local law enforcement, who first observes a crime in the act; conducts an investigation; writes a report, and issues a citation or arrest upon the accused to be heard at a later date in the court. If the defendant is arrested by the police officer, they will be held in the local jail to wait for their case to be heard in court; if the defendant does not appear to be a flight risk, the court may allow bail, which allows the accused to wait for the trail outside of the jail system after paying a specified amount. The cash bail system was created to ensure that people return to the court as the case progresses, but, over time, the bail system has transformed into a for-profit system where the level of your wealth determines your likelihood of incarceration. The accused will be held in jail under the presumption as guilty before court conviction unless wealthy enough to pay a court determined bail amount. Many families in poor minorities cannot afford to post bail so they remain locked up without an actual conviction until their case is heard; unable to work and support their family, which further destabilizes communities.
During the pretrial process, the court decides if the prosecutor has presented enough evidence to convict/indict the accused defendant of the crime in question. At the first court appearance- the arraignment- the judge informs the defendant of the charges, if any, informed of their rights, and asked to enter their plea: guilty, not guilty, or no contest. If the defendant enters a not guilty plea and the court possesses enough evidence against the accused to convict them of the crime in question, then a trial date is set. Trials represent a costly and lengthy process for both the court system and the defendants, which is why 97 percent of federal and 94 percent of state cases end in plea bargains, meaning no costly trial and no opportunity for the defendant to be found innocent and released.
When a defendant agrees to a plea bargain, they forgo their Sixth Amendment rights to a speedy, public trial and agree to a lesser charge from the prosecutor in exchange for their admission of guilt. This saves the judicial system the burden of trying every case brought before the court, which would backlog and overload the already clogged bureaucratic judicial process. Under this current judicial system that rewards defendants for their admission of guilt, however, the onus and power of the court system transfer from the hands and knowledge of the judge and the jury, into the power and control of the prosecutor, whose career depends on guilty convictions and lengthy jail or prison sentences.
Trials decided by judge and jury require a burden of proof, which means that the prosecutor must prove their claim with evidence that supports their assertion beyond a reasonable doubt. This gives prosecutors the power to threaten criminal defendants with more severe sentences in order for them to admit their guilt in exchange for a lesser prison or jail sentence. For example, prosecutors may threaten the death penalty or a life sentence if the defendant plans to plead not guilty, which would burden the court with a lengthy trial process and may allow the defendant to be released if found to be innocent. The prosecutor’s career and reputation are determined by the number of guilty pleas that they receive, rather than by their logical and measured interpretation of the law, typically the responsibility of the judge.
Under this plea bargain frenzy judicial system, where power rests in the hands of the prosecutor, rather than the judge, the incentive becomes guilty pleas and lengthy prison sentences rather than the Constitutional right of the accused to a fair and speedy trial. The plea bargain judicial process becomes, proven guilty unless wealthy enough to post bail and take the case to trial to be proven innocent. This type of judicial system contributes to the extreme levels of race-based, mass incarceration within the United States today, as a result of decades of ‘tough on crime’ political policies that encourage the capture and imprisonment of large numbers of the population, typically African Americans and other minorities, that cannot afford to challenge the courts conviction in order to take the case to trial; so they accept their guilty plea bargain, without trial, and serve their jail or prison sentence as convicted criminals.
The Miranda Rights
In 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the historic case of Miranda v. Arizona, declaring that whenever a person is taken into police custody, before being questioned he or she must be told of the Fifth Amendment right not to make any self-incriminating statements. As a result of Miranda, anyone in police custody must be told four things before being questioned:
- You have the right to remain silent.
- Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.
- You have the right to an attorney.
- If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you. Part 2