The students I teach in prison who have the longest sentences are, almost without exception, the ones who demanded a jury trial. If everyone charged with a crime had a jury trial, the court system would implode. Prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges use those who insist on a jury trial—often people who did not commit the crime with which they were charged—as examples. Their sentences, frequently life sentences, are grim reminders as to why it is in the best interests of a defendant, even if he or she did not commit the crime, to take a plea agreement. Ninety-four percent of state-level felony convictions and 97 percent of federal felony convictions are the result of guilty pleas. And studies by groups such as Human Rights Watch confirm the punitive nature of jury trials: Those who go to jury trials get an additional 11 years, on average, tacked on to their sentences. The rich get high-priced lawyers and lengthy jury trials. The poor are shipped directly to jail or prison.
Police don’t have the time, resources or inclination to investigate most homicides. To close a case, what they need is a suspect, or suspects. Suspects always receive several other charges, such as kidnapping, that carry long sentences, in addition to the main charge. It does not matter whether they kidnapped someone. That is not the point. The point is to give them so many charges that they are looking at a virtual life sentence. This makes the reduced sentence offered in a plea agreement very attractive. Since poor people often cannot afford bail, they sit in a county jail for months and often years before trial, adding to the pressure to accept a plea agreement. If they are young and do not have an outside support system, they can easily be worn down and made to sign a confession.
…you are assigned a court-appointed lawyer. This lawyer is so overworked he or she does not have the time to investigate the case and mount a credible defense. The lawyer’s real function is as a negotiator with the prosecutor for a plea agreement. A plea agreement, always carried out in secret, means the prosecutor will drop some of the charges. A plea agreement reduces the time in prison significantly, often by half. Go to court, you are warned, and you will face all the charges. The pressure to plead out is effective and intense, which is why most people, even those who did not commit the crime, plead guilty. Since nearly all cases are settled with plea agreements, the public, from which a jury would be selected, is blocked from seeing the travesty our judicial system has become.
The judicial system never has been fair to the poor, especially poor people of color. But its propensity for injustice has been expanded over the past three decades, as Michelle Alexander illustrated in her book “The New Jim Crow.” The number of crimes, especially on the federal level, that people can be charged with has exploded. There were once only three named federal criminal acts: treason, piracy and counterfeiting. Today there are thousands. The law as an instrument of morality at the state and federal levels has been deformed into an instrument of racialized social control. It imposes legal duties on the poor and then imprisons them for not carrying out those duties.
The carcel state—composed of 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 901 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,163 local jails and 76 Indian Country jails, along with military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, and prisons in the U.S. territories—is a subculture unto itself, with an $81 billion budget and tremendous political clout. We spend a total of $265 billion on federal, state and local corrections and the police and court systems. The two main political parties compete to see which can be “tougher” on crime.
There are now 65 million people in the United States who because of past convictions make up a criminal caste that is denied things ranging from public housing to the right to vote. There are 7 million controlled by parole and probation officers. We have the highest rate of incarceration in the world. These numbers will, as our society unravels, go up.
Corporations have taken over larger and larger segments of prison life, from food service to money transfers, commissaries and phone communications. A million prisoners work for corporations in prison and are often paid under a dollar an hour. Prisoners and their families are exploited for billions in corporate profits. Corporate lobbyists sponsor legislation to make sure this captive population remains captive. Black and brown bodies on the streets of our cities do not bring in revenue for these corporations; behind bars they each generate $40,000 to $50,000 a year.
As the rot of deindustrialization spreads across the country, the experience of people of color—the lowest stratum in the hierarchy of classes—will become normalized. Once rights become privileges for any segment of a population, as Arendt pointed out, they can be revoked for the rest of the population. We have built a terrifying legal and policing apparatus that has placed the poor of our nation, victims of corporate pillage, in bondage. This system is creeping outward to cement into place an American tyranny.