America’s criminal justice system is failing to provide justice.
Let’s talk about these failures:
1) The prosecution of Edward Snowden. Edward Snowden has done a great service to the People of United States in revealing potentially criminal and unconstitutional conduct by the government.
He has been successful in starting a conversation about government practices — practices which are defended in the name of terrorism almost thirteen years after 9/11.
The response of the government, from the Department of Justice, has been to shoot the messenger and to indict Edward Snowden for revealing activities that go against the core of the protections provided by the Bill of Rights.
In fact you have two law professors writing in the New York Times, one from Stanford and one from the University of Virginia, saying that the NSA activities are “criminal.”
So these are allegedly criminal activities, and the response from the Department of Justice has been to go after the person revealing the activities instead of the ones engaging in the allegedly criminal conduct.
2) California’s prison system. California is a beautiful state but at the moment there is a deep and disturbing crisis with respect to its prisons. The prison system in California is completely broken. In 2011, the most conservative Supreme Court in history told the State of California that its prison system was so bad it violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishment.” So you know things have to be pretty bad when this Supreme Court is finding constitutional violations. The federal courts have found that “an inmate in one of California’s prisons needlessly dies every six or seven days due to constitutional deficiencies.”
Now, prisoners are going on hunger strikes in response to the conditions in California’s prisons. My law firm is also representing a former California prisoner, who is HIV positive, and who alleges that while he was in San Quentin State Prison prison officers disclosed his HIV positive status to the prison, withheld his HIV medications (in one instance for five weeks), and failed to protect him from other inmates who targeted him for being HIV positive.
3) Guantanamo Bay. So much could be written about the horror that is Guantanamo Bay, the dark symbol it is and will become; its vileness and repugnancy, its acidic corrosion of America’s foundational laws and principles. A five month hunger strike recently ended, possibly because of some minor court victories, but possibly not.
Eighty-three (83) of the 166 inmates still held at Guantanamo have been cleared for release. One of these inmates includes Shaker Aamer, a Saudi Arabian citizen and British resident who was never charged with any crime and was cleared for release by President George W. Bush in 2007.
Yasiin Bey, formerly known as Mos Def, volunteered to undergo force feeding under a camera. It is clearly an act of torture, which the United Nations itself stated in May.
So again, here is the government, which is supposed to be upholding rights, defending justice, and preserving the Bill of Rights, engaging in torture every day and refusing to release people who have by the government’s own admission not committed any crime.
4) The Zimmerman trial. I don’t think there’s anyone who is pleased with the outcome of the Zimmerman Case, whatever they thought of the merits of other side.
We ought to be able to walk away from a trial feeling satisfied with both the process and the outcome. Today we have the opposite: everyone walks away feeling unsatisfied with both the process and the outcome. So today we’re living 180 degrees away from where we need to be with respect to criminal justice. There’s a crisis: the system needs a complete turnaround, complete reform, and that reform has to be a different vision with respect to criminal justice.
Fundamentally we have to go back to the basics, and I mean the basics in terms of what are our values, what is the foundation for criminal justice in this country? What are we going to criminalize?
Are we really going to criminalize whistleblowers, criminalize people who come to the People to tell them that the government is doing something wrong? The government exists to serve the people, not the other way around, or as someone said in Aramaic (translated into Greek) a couple thousand years ago, “The Sabbath was made for man, man was not made for the Sabbath.”
And with respect to California, the State is failing in its duties to protect citizens. Prisoners are citizens as well and if there’s this crisis in the prison system then there’s something deeply wrong going on a societal level. People are not being educated, they’re not finding jobs, if there’s recidivism then it means that the criminal justice system is failing in its duties to reform and rehabilitate, which should be its purpose.
And Guantanamo – Guantanamo is as dark as it gets for this country, to have this kind of black hole where people are being tortured — literally tortured, just like in the gulags or in Auschwitz — without oversight: this is a deep deep stain. This is the real crime. What’s going on there is truly criminal and so disrespectful to our Constitution, to our rights, to our proud tradition going back over 800 years that the sovereign cannot deny either justice or right, in the words of Magna Carta.
The Zimmerman outcome is a clear sign that we still have a lot of work to do in this country regarding issues of skin color. The “coloreds,” or whatever we are or remain, those of us with a bit more melanin, we remain invisible — as Ralph Ellison put it sixty years ago — invisible except when this stuff happens. There’s been a lot of progress since then, but there’s also no denying that sometimes a person sees a little melanin or a lot of melanin and they see terrorists or day laborers or criminals. There have been changes in the laws and those changes have been positive, but what we really need is deep-seated cultural change where people see beyond melanin to character, a dream someone dreamed but has yet to fully manifest.
There’s just got to be an honest look of that. There’s no need for judgment, just that simple look. Where are we today? Would there be torture in Guantanamo if it had been Norwegians flying those planes? Would Trayvon Martin have been killed if he’d been a little lighter? It’s not the answers that are important to these questions — it’s the dialogue. Why are we so scared of dialogue on these subjects?