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Our tough criminal system

Published June 22. 2013 09:02AM


There's been a bit of controversy over the fact that "Sesame Street" always willing and eager to address all children who might watch the program, not just the middle class cable-watchers that so many programs actively court recently featured a Muppet whose father is in jail.

It might be a first for children's television, but it's not all that unusual these days in real life.

In fact, I could have told you that without even looking up the statistics. Based solely on conversations with friends and family members who teach children in the public school system, it's evident to me that this topic not only deserves to be addressed, but is disturbingly relevant.

The United States has the highest documented incarceration rate in the entire world: about 0.7% of the adult U.S. population (according to a 2011 study). It would appear that it is alarmingly "normal" to have a parent, or relative, in prison.

Of course, there are detractors as there always are when certain people are faced with a reality they'd prefer not to confront. Alex Jones of fame has called the "Sesame Street" segment a "propaganda program designed to help children accept the fact that daddy is in jail." As if that were a duplicitous act.

Because after all, is there any other choice? Should we be rallying children to protest the U.S. prison system in between naptime and show-and-tell?

Of course there are problems with the system racial bias, for one, and excessive punishment for nonviolent crimes (particularly the so-called "war on drugs") that eat up resources and money and, evidently, tear apart families. But those problems are the province of adults, not children. Kids simply want to know they're not alone.

If we adults can learn anything from "Sesame Street," it's that crime and drugs, and how we choose to handle those problems, have a huge impact our youngest generations just not always in the ways that public service announcements would have us imagine.


Why does the United States have the highest incarceration rate of all the Western democracies?

First, we have mandatory sentences - often-lengthy ones - for relatively minor drug violations.

Today, our federal narcotics laws are butting heads with the will of the people and an ever-increasing number of state legislators representing the people. The number of states which have legalized medical marijuana is approaching the halfway point. And a few states have either legalized marijuana - period - or else eviscerated the penalty for possession.

The Department of Justice has announced that in effect federal agencies won't do much to detect and prosecute cannabis users in these states. This isn't enough. A revamping of federal drug policies and laws is needed.

Second, states which enacted three-strike laws are finding these statutes can produce gross miscarriages of justice. In states such as California some convicts are serving mandatory life sentences for minor third offences. In a few, well-publicized instances, the judges who sentenced these cons have called publicly for their pardons.

Mandatory minimum sentences and three-strike statutes reflect the broader public distrust of government officials. This pervasive cynicism concerning our governments at all levels probably began 50 years ago with the inception of the now widely accepted belief that President John Kennedy's assassination was a CIA or LBJ conspiracy. Watergate was icing on the Kennedy-conspiracy cake, and it has been downhill ever since.

Government doesn't even trust itself anymore. And, so, Congress and many state legislatures have passed these onerous sentencing statutes to force judges, whom they consider too liberal, to be draconian from their benches.

Third, our over-burdened under-funded criminal justice system is incapable of trying every case that comes through the pipelines. Consequently, plea agreements have become the rule, rather than the exception.

Defendants charged with multiple offences, possibly facing long periods of pre-trial incarceration if they can't make bail, and represented by beleaguered public defenders, may sometimes plead out even if innocent.

Everybody gripes that the U.S. has too many lawyers. And I grant that 1.25 million licensed lawyers for a population of some 315 million looks a lot like overkill. The irony is that, while corporate America has its $500/hour hotshots from big law firms, the lumpen proletariat is hard pressed to afford competent legal representation for their myriad criminal, landlord-tenant, domestic violence, and other legal needs. The free market has not worked, where legal services are concerned.

Are there bad people on the mean streets of America? Yes indeed … and that includes New York's Wall Street and Washington's K Street (where the lobbyists lurk).

But we are no worse than our European cousins. The level of incarceration is a crime of the system not of the citizenry.

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