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The wheels of justice


Good Radley Balko thread on how innocent people plead out to crimes they didn’t commit when the alternative is sitting around in jail for months at a time and losing your job/apartment etc. in the process:

This is a thread about time and the criminal justice system. We tend to think that the time of judges and lawyers is expensive. They’re professional people doing important things, so their time is scarce. We also tend to think that accused people tend to be poor…

…and perhaps unemployed. So their time isn’t afforded much value. This is a misconception. Wealth allows you to hire help, buy time-saving conveniences, etc. 

This misconception causes the CJ system to be destructively cavalier with the time of the accused.

Prosecutors get continuances, cases move glacially at the convenience of public officials, judges end court at 3pm, all while people languish behind bars awaiting hearings. This causes a lot of harm. Case in point:

Note that the defendant in this case wouldn’t even have been charged if his case had been assigned to a different prosecutor in the same parish, who doesn’t prosecute low-level possession charges on principle.

All this reminds me of a passage from Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier:

In Wigan I stayed for a while with a miner who was suffering from nystagmus. He could see across the room but not much further. He had been drawing compensation of twenty-nine shillings a week for the past nine months, but the colliery company were now talking of putting him on ‘partial compensation’ of fourteen shillings a week. It all depended on whether the doctor passed him as fit for light work ‘on top’. Even if the doctor did pass him there would, needless to say, be no light work available, but he could draw the dole and the company would have saved itself fifteen shillings a week.

Watching this man go to the colliery to draw his compensation, I was struck by the profound differences that are still made by status. Here was a man who had been half blinded in one of the most useful of all jobs and was drawing a pension to which he had a perfect right, if anybody has a right to anything. Yet he could not, so to speak, demand this pension–he could not, for instance, draw it when and how he wanted it. He had to go to the colliery once a week at a time named by the company, and when he got there he was kept waiting about for hours in the cold wind. For all I know he was also expected to touch his cap and show gratitude to whoever paid him; at any rate he had to waste an afternoon and spend sixpence in bus fares.

It is very different for a member of the bourgeoisie, even such a down-at-heel member as I am. Even when I am on the verge of starvation I have certain rights attaching to my bourgeois status. I do not earn much more than a miner earns, but I do at least get it paid into my bank in a gentle-manly manner and can draw it out when I choose. And even when my account is exhausted the bank people are passably polite. This business of petty inconvenience and indignity, of being kept waiting about, of having to do everything at other people’s convenience, is inherent in working-class life.

A thousand influences constantly press a working man down into a passive role. He does not act, he is acted upon. He feels himself the slave of mysterious authority and has a firm conviction that ‘they’ will never allow him to do this, that, and the other. Once when I was hop-picking I asked the sweated pickers (they earn something under sixpence an hour) why they did not form a union. I was told immediately that ‘they’ would never allow it. Who were ‘they’? I asked. Nobody seemed to know, but evidently ‘they’ were omnipotent.

A person of bourgeois origin goes through life with some expectation of getting what he wants, within reasonable limits. Hence the fact that in times of stress ‘educated’ people tend to come to the front; they are no more gifted than the others and their ‘education’ is generally quite useless in itself, but they are accustomed to a certain amount of deference and consequently have the cheek necessary to a commander. That they will come to the front seems to be taken for granted, always and everywhere. In Lissagaray’s _History of the Commune_ there is an interesting passage describing the shootings that took place after the Commune had been suppressed. The authorities were shooting the ringleaders, and as they did not know who the ringleaders were, they were picking them out on the principle that those of better class would be the ringleaders. An officer walked down a line of prisoners, picking out likely-looking types. One man was shot because he was wearing a watch, another because he ‘had an intelligent face’. I should not like to be shot for having an intelligent face, but I do agree that in almost any revolt the leaders would tend to be people who could pronounce their aitches.

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