In the current issue of Commentary, there is a symposium of 43 knowledgeable people who discuss whether they are optimistic or pessimistic about America. In the current edition of The New Criterion, the eminent British historian Andrew Roberts, now a U.S. resident, assesses similar points in a lead essay about how benign America has been as the superpower, and how keenly it will be missed if superseded in that role by China.
Nowhere in either interesting section of either magazine is the appalling state of the U.S. justice system mentioned as symbolic or indicative of the country’s problems. Very adequate attention is given to the uncompetitive deterioration of American public education, to fiscal irresponsibility, and certainly to the shortcomings of popular culture and the media.
I try to rise above the fact, known to most readers, that I write from a federal prison where I have been sent for a total of 37 months, for crimes I did not commit, and after all 17 counts against me were abandoned, rejected by jurors, or vacated by a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court. I have amply described my legal travails elsewhere and refer to them here only as disclosure.
The United States has six to twelve times as many incarcerated people per capita as Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom, all prosperous democracies. The U.S. has a much higher percentage of successful prosecutions, a lower hurdle to clear to prosecute (with rubber-stamp grand juries), a greater range of offenses, heavier sentences, and a higher recidivism rate than any of those other countries.
As Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia wrote in his essay “Criminal Injustice” two years ago, either those other countries are less concerned with crime than the U.S., or Americans are more addicted to criminal behavior — both preposterous suggestions — or the U.S. justice system is not working well.
There are 48 million people in the United States with a “record,” many of them based on ancient DUIs or disorderly behavior decades ago at a fraternity party and other unstigmatizing offenses, but still a severe inconvenience to them when they travel abroad or their names are fed to almost any information system; and millions have had their lives effectively ruined. The U.S. has 5 percent of the world’s population, 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated people, and 50 percent of the world’s lawyers, who invoice almost 10 percent of U.S. GDP (around $1.4 trillion annually). In the mid-1970s, the U.S. had about 650,000 people in mental institutions; today, it has only 50,000. Prisoners cost $40,000 per year to detain, and some states can no longer afford it. The conditions of hundreds of thousands of prisoners are grossly and shamefully inhumane. (My own are not.)
The Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendment rights of assurance against capricious prosecution, due process, no seizure of property without due compensation, an impartial jury, access to counsel, prompt justice, and reasonable bail, don’t exist. The ubiquitous plea bargain is just the wholesale subornation or extortion of inculpatory perjury in exchange for immunities or reduced sentences (often with people who are threatened, although there is no evidence against them). Assets are routinely frozen on the basis of false affidavits in ex parte proceedings to deny defendants the ability to defend themselves. Those who do exercise their constitutional right to a defense receive three times as severe a sentence as those who plead guilty; 95 percent of cases are won by prosecutors, 90 percent of those without trial. The public defenders have no resources to conduct a serious defense and are usually just Judas goats of the prosecutors conducting the defendants to legal destruction.