We all learned recently, courtesy of a high profile drunk driver in Texas, that the well-to-do are treated differently by our justice system then are the working class and poor. The shock and outrage that accompanied this news blip brought to mind the classic scene of hypocrisy from Casablanca, when the Prefect of Police, Captain Renault calls for Rick’s Cafe to be shut down because of the gambling going on in the back room:
Renault: Clear the room at once!
Rick: How can you close me up? On what grounds?
Renault: I am shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!
(The croupier comes out of the gambling room and up to Renault)
Croupier: (handing Renault a roll of bills) Your winnings, sir.
Renault: Oh. Thank you very much.
The truth is that anyone who is shocked, shocked to learn that those with money are treated differently by our criminal justice system than those who have little or none, have been intentionally ignoring the disparity or have simply not been paying attention. From the methods of investigation, arrest, and interrogation, to the early assistance of counsel, to treatment options and alternatives to prosecution, to the quality of legal assistance, there is little doubt that wealth can buy a decidedly higher quality of justice than is generally available to middle or low income. “Affluenza,” the psychological condition that made headlines in Texas, whereby wealth creates such a disconnect between behavior and consequences that it mitigates the seriousness of criminal behavior, is just the latest variation on a theme that has been playing out in our justice system for a very long time.
The contrast between rich and poor is most glaring for individuals who suffer from mental illness, often arrested for petty crimes, such as being drunk in public, panhandling, and trespassing in train stations or shopping malls. For any individual or family with money or adequate health insurance, therapy, medication and even hospitalization may be costly, but they still exist, separate and apart from the criminal justice system.
But those without resources often wind up on the streets, panhandling, self-medicating with alcohol, and committing petty thievery to survive. During the 1990s, jails and prisons emerged as our nation’s psychiatric hospitals and the trend has continued unabated. While the public mental health safety net has become dangerously frayed among competing budget priorities, the criminal justice system in many communities has taken over as the mental health system of last resort. People who cannot get treatment elsewhere, are serially arrested and placed in jails, where law enforcement professionals are forced into the role of mental health professionals. As one commentator put it: the criminal justice system has become the dumping ground for the mentally ill; the “end of the line for the schizophrenics, bipolars, and borderlines among us without the resources or wherewithal to care for themselves and stay out of trouble.”
While our treatment of the mentally ill is the most obvious criminal justice distinction between rich and poor, it is by no means alone. Our country’s crisis in the way we supply attorneys for poor people has been so well documented for so long, that the use of the word “crisis,” no longer applies. The sad state of affairs can easily be described as an accepted, if unfortunate, feature of our criminal justice system.
Various strains of “affluenza” have been infecting our criminal justice system for quite some time. No one should be shocked by an occasional high-profile outbreak.
To learn more about me and the work of The Goemann Law Firm, visit my website.