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THOMPSON: Justice for all a distant dream in America

April 23, 2018 - 12:07 PM

OPINION


Justice…a beautiful word. It’s the essence of fairness. Quite simply, it’s about the protection of rights and the punishment of wrongs. And yet, it’s more dream than reality for far too many people.

I call both Canada and the United States home…and love them both. I gladly served my favourite nations…in the U.S. Air Force on a Royal Canadian Air Force base more than four decades ago. Justice - however strained - exists in both Canada and the United States. There are flaws - some serious ones - but my experience in traveling the world is that most other nations pale against my two homes when it comes to justice.

The judicial systems of Canada and the United States are similar in some ways and very different in others. Both systems evolved from common law. Each has a Constitution at its heart.

But courts in Canada are all part of the same system…with the Supreme Court of Canada as the highest court in the land. Courts in the U.S. exist in two sovereign systems…one serving federal law and one serving state law. The United States Supreme Court decides the fair and just rulings of all contested federal rulings, and hears state court arguments after state court options are exhausted.

Of course, there are other differences…judges here are appointed…and in the U.S. they are both appointed and elected. Further, some states hold partisan elections…as in Florida and some non-partisan…as in California. So much for a shallow discussion of the similarities and differences of the two nations’ judicial systems.

What is disturbing to me…and the focus of the remainder of this column…is the considerable gap between the promise of justice and the realities of justice in the United States for many people. Yes, there are miscarriages of justice in Canada, but nowhere on the scale of what has happened and continues to happen in the U.S.

The evidence is overwhelming on just how bad it is if you’re not a white male. But a look at some other facts are chilling. The United States is about 5 percent of the world’s population…but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners worldwide are in the United States. There are about 2.2 million people in federal and state prisons - both public and private - and in various county and city jails.

African Americans and Hispanic Americans make up about 32 percent of the U.S. population, but account for about 57 percent of those incarcerated in America, according to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). If arrests and sentencing followed racial percentages, American prisons would lose 40 percent of their population.

Plenty of evidence suggests that criminal behaviour is consistent across all races. All races in America use illicit drugs at similar rates, according to public and private research, but African Americans and Hispanic Americans are three times more likely to be arrested and six times more likely to be incarcerated than Caucasians for drug offences.

There are some truths that should not be overlooked about why America has so many people incarcerated…and why those people are disproportionately minorities and poor.

Prisons have become a big business…profitable and with a growth rate like few other industries. Just ten years ago there were only a handful of private prisons with a couple thousand inmates in the entire U.S. Today, there are more than 100 private prisons and nearly 65,000 inmates. If growth continues at this rate there will be 500 private prisons and more than 360,000 inmates sometime in the upcoming decade.

What are these mostly minority and poor inmates doing? They are working…primarily for Wall Street. That’s right. Americans can even invest in various funds that support prison labour. And prison labour…well, it’s like something from another century. “Employers” get a full-time labour force with no worries about vacations and workers’ comp, and certainly not showing up for work. All this for an average of about 25 cents an hour…enough to make Simon Legree - fictional slave owner in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” - smile broadly.

Like most things that aren’t fair and just…all you have to do is follow the money to find the source of the problem. Who benefits from this new form of slavery in America? Many of the brightest stars in the galaxy of American corporations who used to pay minimum wage and higher…IBM, Dell, AT & T, Macy’s, among others...have a captive, cheap labour force, according to the Centre for Research on Globalization (CRG), an independent research and media organization based in Montreal.

The potential return for investors is so great that prison funds and individual prisons participate in trade shows and conventions, have websites and use direct advertising…like any other big business. It’s so lucrative that prisoners - some who are doing long stretches of time for the most serious offences - are transferred from one prison to another to secure and retain contracts from corporations looking for cheap labour. What’s peculiar is that crime…especially serious crime…has gone down…and yet America is building prisons at record rates.

The vast majority of federal inmates - all but three percent - are serving sentences for non-violent crimes. Human rights groups believe more than 300,000 innocent people are languishing in municipal and county jails…more than 80 percent minorities…and virtually all of them poor. Most are being held for trial…unable to post bail. More than two-thirds of state prison inmates committed non-violent crimes. And about one in six of all 2.2 million prisoners in America suffer from one or more mental illnesses.

Obviously, America needs to take a hard look at prison reform. The Netherlands - among other nations - is closing prisons. Only 69 of every 100,000 Dutch people are in prison…versus more than 700 per 100,000 - the world’s highest rate - in America.

Rehabilitation works elsewhere…and people who commit crimes pay their debts to society in more effective ways than wasting away in prison cells. Other nations support and have safety nets for offenders that cost a fraction of the amount needed to build and operate prisons.

But America emphasizes punishment - perhaps more for the sake of punishment alone - than making people useful citizens again. Otherwise, inmates who have paid their debts to society would win back basic rights…like the ability to vote. But, don’t underestimate the profit motive in looking away from prison reform…corporations and prisons are simply making too much money off powerless people to want change.

American needs to look beyond prison reform to how crimes are prosecuted…and by whom. There are nearly 2,500 elected state and local prosecutors in the U.S., and nearly 95 percent are white…and nearly 80 percent are men.

There are - not hundreds - but thousands of instances every week that result in disproportionate rates of arrest and conviction, and the violation of civil rights for minorities and poor in America.

And until America bridges the considerable gap between the magical words in its Constitution, Bill of Rights and Pledge of Allegiance and reality…justice for all is a distant dream.

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines. His essays are a blend of news reporting and opinion.


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