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PLN associate editor's editorial on justice for the wealthy vs. everyone else

Tennessean, June 22, 2007.
PLN associate editor's editorial on justice for the wealthy vs. everyone else - Tennessean 2007

The rich aren't like you and me? Not when it comes to criminal justice


Published: Friday, 06/22/07

Tennessee Voices

An undue amount of media attention has been devoted to the short stint in jail that heiress Paris Hilton is serving following her probation violation in an alcohol-related reckless driving case.

There is certainly a degree of sensationalism attached to Hilton's situation; however, the resulting media circus has served an important public service. It has exposed our nation's two-track criminal justice system: one track for the wealthy and connected, another for everyone else.

The disparate treatment given to the rich and famous starts with police decisions over who is arrested — such as Vanderbilt police officer Juan Monarez, who chose not to perform a sobriety test on celebrity Kid Rock during a Nashville traffic stop in February 2005, and state trooper Lt. Ronnie Shirley, who intervened to have a traffic ticket dismissed for Deputy Gov. Dave Cooley in February 2004.

Even if arrested, people with wealth or standing are able to avoid jail by posting bond or being released without payment. The state lawmakers indicted in the 2005 "Tennessee Waltz" sting, for example, were all released on their own recognizance except for former Sen. John Ford, who posted a $20,000 bond and was then placed on house arrest.

Defendants who are unable to afford bond must languish in jail — presumably innocent until proven guilty — until they go to trial or accept a plea bargain. According to the Davidson County Sheriff's Office, as of April 10, 2007, at least 326 pre-trial detainees had spent six months in jail; 117 had been behind bars for more than a year, and nine had served more than 1,000 days waiting to go to court. Which gives some perspective on Hilton's 45-day maximum jail sentence.

The wealthy can also retain attorneys to keep them out of jail in the first place, as was the case with former Titan Steve McNair, arrested in May 2003 on charges of DUI and weapons possession (charges that were eventually dismissed).

The poor must rely on overworked and underfunded public defenders. While there is no lack of talent in the public defender's office, they have limited resources and time. In fiscal year 2006, the Davidson County Public Defender's Office, with a staff of 44 lawyers, handled 23,199 new cases — or 527 cases per attorney on average over the course of the year. In contrast, the late Johnnie Cochran, who headed O.J. Simpson's legal "dream team," devoted 15 months exclusively to his celebrity client — for which he was paid millions of dollars.

The disparity between haves and have-nots is also evident after punishment has been served. Under a state law passed last year, ex-offenders in Tennessee who want to restore their right to vote must first pay all court-ordered restitution. For former felons with money, this isn't a problem; for those without, the inability to pay means they remain disenfranchised.

But, what do we expect in a wealth-driven justice system where at least six out of nine U.S. Supreme Court Justices are millionaires? The bottom line is that we live in a plutocracy with special treatment for the rich, and we have Paris Hilton to thank for making the message clear: We get as much justice as we can afford.

Alex Friedmann of Antioch is the associate editor of Prison Legal News,