Sobering look at how the poor are denied American justice

American penitentiaries, in idealized Quaker imaginings, were to be a place for reflective penitence followed by forgiveness. That's not how it worked out, especially for the poor. And the problem goes far beyond prison reform:

Every year, more than 600,000 individuals are freed from America’s jails and prisons.But many of America’s formerly incarcerated people face numerous obstacles when integrating back into public life once free, according to Wes Caines and his former colleagues Scott Hechinger and Hannah McCrea at Brooklyn Defender Services, a public defender service in New York City. Former prisoners are routinely denied employment, housing, education, and other benefits that would help ease their integration into life on the outside, Caines says. For more read our Q&A with Wes Caines where he discusses his personal story of life after prison.

The shunning ex-cons experience is called a "social death," and it makes them harder to re-assimilate into society after doing their time. This makes it far more likely that they will re-offend.

The same denial of justice also happens to poor crime victims, especially when the person who committed the crime against them has the means to mount a costly defense.

How America's justice system is rigged against the poor (YouTube / Vox)

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  1. It's really amazing how Victor Hugo's work continues to be relevant. He was talking about some of these same issues in the 19th century, and here we still are.

  2. When I started at Symantec in the late 90's, I worked with a person who was responsive and productive as hell. She did her job well, easily in the top 10%. Perhaps better, but let's just say top 10%.

    When it came time to transition from contract work to FTE (jargon for Full Timed Employee, one with benefits and a bit of security), she was fired that day. She had committed a misdemeanor when she was 18, and it was of course public record.

    Virtually all of her co-workers reached out to John Thompson--now the chairman of Microsoft, and a person I greatly admire--and pleaded that she shouldn't be fired for a mistake made years ago, had already paid her "debt" to society, and was clearly a benefit to our team.

    The response was simple, "we have to hold our company to a certain standard".

    Twenty years on it still makes me feel ill. We should have fucking done more, and the justice system in the US is gravely sick.

  3. I know that I am going to get flamed for this, but the most extreme example I can think of is Breivik. I think his sentence is fair. I also believe in twenty years after his sentence is done his psychiatric tests will keep him out of society permanently.

    That is one of the aspects I stand in awe of when it comes to Norwegian criminal justice. That is courage, ethical, moral, and hard.

    Anyway, getting off topic.

  4. Funny how the right thing to do and the hard thing to do converge so often.

    Not every criminal is an angel, I understand that. But even if we assume that they all have demons within aching to unleash themselves on the rest of society, it seems a rather poor course of action to encourage those demons by constraining all other avenues and options. But then I also find the idea of "doing your time" strange. If we care about protecting society, then we should worry more about the liklihood of recidivism. If we care about deterrence, then we would spend more time scientifically studying what deters people from committing crime and applying those principles. But we care about "doing time" and "paying debts." You can't really extract justice from human suffering. It's just the brutal impulse to exact pain on others manifesting itself through a legal framework.

    The moral distance between you and a criminal is shorter than you think.

  5. Oh that? We are all sinners. That's who and what we are. Alcoholics never change, and neither do criminals. For the same reasons. Sinners stay sinners and only by the grace of our Lord and Saviour can they find redemption.

    Our justice system is more Christian than people care to consider or admit. We've secularized it, but that influence is baked in deep.

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