Day 9

Even More War

In addition to the free military equipment, training, and cash grants, state and local law enforcement agencies were given the authority to keep the “booty” of the War — the vast majority of cash and assets seized as they conquered, and all for their own use.  Law enforcement agencies, beginning in the mid-1980s, were able to increase the size of their budgets by taking the cash, cars, and homes of people suspected of illegal drug activity, use or sales.  All that was required was a showing of mere probable cause that the property had been “involved” somehow in a crime.  Owners had no right to counsel and the burden was placed on them to prove the property’s “innocence”.  Between 1988 and 1992 alone, federally funded drug task forces seized over $1 billion in assets.  *see Policing for Profit, p. 64.

And as you might imagine by now, these drug forfeiture laws work in favor of those with assets and against those without.  Mostly poor or of moderate means, the property owners cannot afford to hire an attorney or pay considerable court costs, so challenges were few and far between.  An investigation by journalists in Massachusetts revealed that payments in drug profits won reductions in sentences for dealers in almost three-fourths of such cases.  *see Policing for Profit, p. 72.  Between 1988 and 1992 alone, federally funded drug task forces seized over $1 billion in assets.  Although the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act passed by Congress in 2000 provided for many significant due-process changes, it did not confront and alter the perverse economic incentive and profit motive in drug-law enforcement.  Without ever charging anyone with a crime, law enforcement agencies to this day are still legally allowed to seize assets supposedly involved in illegal drug activity.  * See, again, Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness, Ch. 2.

Even though more than 40 years ago, in Gideon v. Wainwright, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that poor people accused of serious crimes have the right to an attorney, today, tens of thousands of poor people go to jail every year without ever talking to a lawyer.  Even if they do talk to an attorney it may only be for a few minutes before they are way too often railroaded through a system in which almost all cases are resolved through plea bargaining.  Possessing great power — virtually unconstrained discretion, overcharging, mandatory minimum sentencing — to compel defendants to plead guilty, prosecutors “hold the keys to the jailhouse door”.

A 2004 report on the status of indigent defense released by the American Bar Association determined that, “All too often, defendants plead guilty, even if they are innocent, without really understanding their legal rights or what is occurring.  Sometimes the proceedings reflect little or no recognition that the accused is mentally ill or does not adequately understand English.  The fundamental right to a lawyer that Americans assume applies to everyone accused of criminal conduct effectively does not exist in practice for countless people across the United States.”  *see Gideon’s Broken Promise.  And again, see Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, pp. 84-9.

I could go on and on about these issues.  If you want more, let me know.  But I will likely first tell you to read Michelle Alexander’s book and listen to one of her speeches on YouTube or read the ABA report above or find a criminal defense attorney or prosecutor and ask them what it is really like.  Or even better yet, ask the poor themselves, the indigent criminally accused, a prisoner or formerly incarcerated one.  They are the ones we should be listening to.

I hope you are seeing the picture being painted.

The system is set up in a way that feeds the beast of mass incarceration.  And its favorites to devour are the poor.

People hate this kind of talk.
    Raw truth is never popular.
But here it is, bluntly spoken:
    Because you run roughshod over the poor
    and take the bread right out of their mouths,
You’re never going to move into
    the luxury homes you have built.
You’re never going to drink wine
    from the expensive vineyards you’ve planted.
I know precisely the extent of your violations,
    the enormity of your sins. Appalling!
You bully right-living people,
    taking bribes right and left and kicking the poor when they’re down.

Justice is a lost cause. Evil is epidemic.
    Decent people throw up their hands.
Protest and rebuke are useless,
    a waste of breath.

Seek good and not evil—
    and live!
You talk about God, the God-of-the-Angel-Armies,
    being your best friend.
Well, live like it,
    and maybe it will happen.

Hate evil and love good,
    then work it out in the public square.

Amos 5: 10-15, The Message


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