Time to End a Two-Tiered Justice System

In the wake of former Virginia Governor Bob McConnell’s measly two year sentence for corruption, and the fact that grand juries failed to indict police officers in the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, is it any wonder that Deborah Foster wrote these words in 2013 in Politicus USA: “One would have to be exceptionally naïve to believe that the American criminal justice system doles out punishments fairly.”

“Justice is supposed to be blind,” Foster continued, “but the reality is that economic status, skin color, where you live, and who you hire as an attorney more likely determine your fate than the facts of your case.”

Carl Gibson wrote about “our fraudulent two-tiered justice system” in a 2014 Huffington Post piece. “The most glaring evidence of our fraudulent judicial branch is shown in the treatment of Credit Suisse’s admission that it helped up to 22,000 wealthy Americans hide approximately $12 billion in assets from the IRS. … . Credit Suisse…was allowed to slide back into good graces by paying a $2.6 billion fine…a lesser rate than lawful Americans pay in taxes.”

Think about that when you consider what happened to Cecily McMillan, whom Gibson cites by way of comparison. McMillan, a graduate student who attended an Occupy Wall Street protest in New York, testified that as she attempted to leave the protest a man who never identified himself as a plainclothes police officer grabbed her breast from behind. Reflexively, she struck him with her elbow for which she was beaten in the street, refused medical attention, and arrested on the charge of assaulting a police officer. At her trial the judge would not allow discussion of her attacker’s violent past, nor would he allow talk of the NYPD’s violent crackdown on nonviolent protests in the Occupy encampment. McMillan was sent to the notorious Rikers Island jail for three months (plus five years probation). She could have gotten seven years. Her attacker, whom many said was guilty of sexual assault, was never tried.

A December 2014 editorial in The New York Times revealed just how bad things are for people like McMillan - vs. Gov. McConnell or Wall Street bankers - who are sent to Rikers Island.  In “the quest to end the barbarism that has long dominated New York’s Rikers Island jail,” the Times editorial announced, the Justice Department plans “to join a pending class-action lawsuit that charges the Department of Correction with failing to discipline officers engaged in abuse.”

The jail’s “deep-seated culture of violence” was revealed in a “lacerating” report put out in December by the U.S. Attorney in Manhattan.  It cited in particular “bloodcurdling examples of sadistic violence” perpetrated against adolescent inmates and revealed that “inmates were sometimes …taken to isolated areas…where they were beaten by groups of officers” who were subsequently “promoted right up the line.”

Antonio Bascaro, who has been in prison for over 34 years (with no prior criminal record) for a non-violent first-time marijuana-only offence, is in Florida, not in Rikers Island, so maybe he doesn’t have to fear this kind of prison violence. That’s good because Mr. Bascaro, the longest serving marijuana prisoner in the history of the U.S., is eighty years old now and wheelchair-bound.

But Wall Street banker Jeffrey Epstein, the so-called “Gatsby of his time,” who was first arrested in 2005 for sexual trafficking to “prominent American politicians, powerful business executives, foreign presidents, a well-known prime minister, and other world leaders,” as The Guardian put it in January, is unlikely to see jail any time soon. His bevy of well-paid lawyers (one wonders if some of them were his clients) are sure to keep appealing any convictions he receives for years to come. Even if he does go to prison, it’s going to be one of those where white-collar criminals enjoy certain amenities that the Antonio Bascaros of the prison-world can’t even dream of.

When Attorney General Eric Holder expressed concern about Wall Street banks being too big to prosecute for fear of having “a negative impact on the national economy,” Federal Judge Jed Rakoff shot back, “To a federal judge, who takes an oath to apply the law equally to rich and poor, this excuse…is frankly disturbing for what it says about the department’s apparent disregard for equality under the law.  If you’re going to put people in jail for having a joint in their pocket…you cannot let people [at HSBC] who laundered $850 million for the worst drug offenders in the world walk.”

But perhaps it is Matt Taibbi, author of The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap, who says it best.  “It is grotesque to consider the non-enforcement of white collar criminals when you consider how incredibly aggressive law enforcement is with regard to everyone else.”

No doubt Cecily McMillan, the kids trapped on Rikers Island, Antonio Bascaro and so many more like them, agree and find a modicum of solace in knowing that a few of us get just how bad our two-tiered system of justice is, and are taking the trouble to call for reform.