I recently watched this clip from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver about public defenders. It is not a slam against public defenders, but rather a criticism of a system in which anywhere from 60-90% of people arrested cannot afford lawyers and rely on public defenders, but there are just far too many of them for public defenders to do their job adequately. This leaves many defendants with less than adequate representation. As a result over 90% of cases by public defenders end in plea bargains, even when the people aren’t guilty. That’s a quick summary, but watching the clip is well worth the time and speaks for itself.
And I started to think about the entire philosophy of justice we have in this country and got really sad about it all. It would be one thing if we had a beautiful ideal and we were continually striving towards it, but it seems that there is enough of a portion of this country that feel justice is working fine, and that if you are in a position to be arrested than you simply have some sort of punishment coming your way. The system is rigged from the police procedures that target low income people knowing that many can’t afford to fight back and will pay fines whether they were really guilty or not, to the court system which puts low income people at a severe disadvantage, to the prison system which profits from long jail sentences for minimal crimes. And once they are in there, opportunities are so low once they get out. As President Obama said, we have 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prison population and compared to other western nations with similar standards of living we are one of the least safe nations. The violent crime rate is down 40% from what it was in 1980 and yet prison populations have increased by over 400%. Something is definitely not right.
And my question really is why is it this way? As poverty continues to grow in this country why do we continue to punish the most impoverished of our people for simply being in poverty? I’m not saying that there aren’t people who commit crimes and that we should just let it happen, but when you look at the environment and challenges they face, those who criticize rarely have experienced such adversity. Sure there is always a small portion who rise out of poverty but for the most part the poor are simply exploited for their labor or for their money. On average, we don’t give them a living wage, we don’t give them access to equal education, we don’t give them equal access to quality health care, and we don’t give them equal access to healthy and affordable food options.
But they all deserve it right? Making those bad decisions when they had so many good decisions open to them. Do we not have a responsibility to raise the less fortunate up? Do we just leave those who haven’t had the opportunities we had to languish and justify it with the idea it’s their fault they are in this position? What about forgiveness? What about compassion? How can we paint such a large population of our country with just one color and ignore the tapestry of lives that exist there? As the top income earners continue to suck away the wealth of the bottom 99% why do we turn our attention downwards, kicking those at the bottom instead of shaking the tree more to let the fruit fall to the ground? Some people in this country act like if we just eliminated the poor the country would be a better place, but in fact it would be chaos and nothing would remain. No soldiers to fight our wars, no workers to pick our food, serve our food, work in retail, and all the other jobs we don’t even notice get done everyday. And even if the void could be filled, the capitalist policies our country function on would simply shift more of us down to the bottom, while the rich keep benefiting.
Welcome to an economy built on consumerism and profit. To answer the real question why, one simply has to follow the money. It is to the benefit of the rich to keep the population of a large portion of the country poor. Because there is only so far wealth can grow, it is finite and if the populous has more, they have less. Life, liberty, and happiness for all citizens of this country take a backseat when money is involved.
I know this post was ranty and I try to put more logical discourse, but just sometimes you just look at these large systems that are so difficult to change when you are just one person and see millions upon millions of people being impacted by a system that is simply not there to help them, and in the long run doesn’t help the rest of us either. I made a resolution with myself about a year ago then when I moved strongly by something emotionally I need to not just complain but do something positive, even if it’s just donate some money to a worthwhile charity. Although perhaps on the periphery of the central theme of this post, there is something that I have been sort of procrastinating getting involved in for some time and I am happy to say I am procrastinating no longer. I have decided to be a CASA volunteer which is a wonderful program where the volunteer acts as an advocate for a neglected or abused child in court until the system finds them a good and safe home. Incarceration is a strong possibility for children who grow up in broken homes and maybe helping in this way I can help a few kids stay out of the prison system in this country.