Just as every cop is a criminal, and all the sinners saints.
— The Rolling Stones
One of my favorite lines by late comedian Richard Pryor: "I go down to the courthouse looking for justice, and that's what I see: Just us."
The great comedian's one-liner certainly tickled plenty of funny bones in its day, but it also serves as a telling commentary on perhaps the most broken element of this country's foundation: our criminal justice system.
Pryor's observation notwithstanding, the devolution of the American justice system, circa 2013, has less to do with race, more to do with dollar bills. Forget the biblical admonition about the difficulty wealthy people face as they seek heaven. Heaven's a much more likely locale for the wealthy than the inside of a prison.
The perversion that passes for justice in this country is the byproduct of a corrupt government whose motivation is less the greater good, more the number of zeroes on the contribution checks. Left to contend with the fallout are judges and law enforcement agencies whose efforts at reform are thwarted by a system that rewards some of its most notorious criminals simply for their impressive bank accounts.
The nation's judges are asked to find creative ways to punish offenders without overcrowding the penal system, which is full to overflowing mostly because of an antiquated "war on drugs" whose surrender should have come several decades ago. In their efforts to meet the dictates of numbers crunchers in the seats of power, the jurists find themselves faced with sentencing schedules that do more to perpetuate recidivism than to eliminate it.
The ever-thinner blue line out on the streets, meanwhile, sees the fruits of some of its best investigative and enforcement efforts negated by sentences that must leave officers wondering just what it means for them to put their lives on the line.
Case in point: An offender captured by Albany officers recently was booked into the Dougherty County Jail on a laundry list of charges worthy of a place of honor on a post office wall. A check — and subsequent double-check — of the offender's bail availability on the jail's automated system showed that the suspect was being held in lieu of a surprisingly small sum of money, an amount, in fact, that's about equivalent to the chump change many criminals facing such charges carry around loose in their khakis.
(Jail Director Col. John Ostrander informed me Tuesday that a glitch in the jail's automated system showed a "0" amount for people booked on unbondable offenses. When suspects facing multiple charges are booked, bond amounts for less serious crimes were being added to the zeroes, implying that such inmates could be released on a low bond. Ostrander said he's already gotten with the system's vendor, which has rewritten code to account for the misinformation.)
As citizens become aware of criminal activity in their community, their natural inclination is to point fingers. Many of them make law enforcement their scapegoat, wondering why the cops can't manage to keep the bad guys off the streets. Others — including many who wear badges and carry guns — say the fault lies with judges whose lenient sentences put hardened criminals back on the streets before the ink on arrest reports has even dried.
The only answer that truly makes sense, though, is reform, drastic reform. A good start would be the decriminalization of marijuana, which if implemented retroactively would instantly take care of the overcrowding of the penal system. The next step would be to hold citizens to a set of legal standards that applies across the board, from those on the lowest rungs of the socio-economic ladder to the criminals who wear $5,000 suits and hold the keys to the nation's largest bank vaults.
Unleash the judges and let them hand out sentences that fit the crimes, not the social register. Reward law enforcement officers for their efforts by showing them that their work is not in vain, that the bad guys they caught will spend time behind bars.
Then, and only then, will the concept of "crime does not pay" be more than the punchline for a sad joke.
Email Metro Editor Carlton Fletcher at firstname.lastname@example.org.