By Mansfield Frazier
OK, I tried; I really, really did try. I wanted to prove I was this big-hearted, magnanimous journalist who is far too pure to step to the level of gloating over results of the recent Presidential Election. However, alas, I came up short. For weeks I was able to maintain a façade of dignity and maturity, but last night me and my friend Larry Durstin — whom I talk politics with on an almost daily basis — just let it all hang out in peals of belly laughs and guffaws as we recalled some of the more hilarious moments of the protracted contest.
The best one, we both agreed, was when The Donald got that royal roasting and reaming on live national TV at that White House Correspondents’ Dinner. The fact he would not laughingly go along with the humor in order to diffuse it speaks volumes about the conservative psyche: Republicans, for the most part, are simply uptight, miserable individuals.
And they got beat… big time. As the voting results solidify and are dispassionately analyzed, it is becoming increasingly clear this race was not even close: the Republicans got a mud hole stomped in their asses; they got beat like a bunch of stepchildren… redheaded stepchildren. Winning sure is great, isn’t it?
Now, with that bit of frivolity out of the way I can concentrate on what the president’s reelection means — at least to me. Other than assuring I’ll go to my grave a happy man (assured our nation is finally on the right track and will remain so for at least the next 30 or so years), it means we now have this grand opportunity to right some wrongs and make ours the kind of nation we say we want it to be: One with Justice for All. However, this election victory only opened the door… we still have to go through it.
In an effort to push us through that door I am going to be writing with a renewed vigor as I attempt to point out what, in my humble opinion, are flaws in our social and criminal justice systems. Sometimes this is going to be heavy contentious lifting, but hey, someone has to do it, so let us get started.
Back in 2007, I wrote a column entitled “Justice Not Colorblind in Cleveland.” In it, I detailed the disparity of prison sentences between Robbie Moore, a 30-year-old black woman from the Cleveland area, and James Skolsky, a 32-year-old white man from the Cleveland area. They both drank themselves insensible before getting behind the wheel of their vehicles, driving the wrong way down one-way Cleveland streets and causing accidents that killed two innocent people. As drunks often do, they both walked away with barely a scratch. However, the similarities of their respective cases stop there.
Moore, who had no previous felony record, was sentenced to 20 years by Judge Kathleen Ann Sutula for her crime, while Skolsky, who had a previous DUI, was sentenced the very next day, by Judge Timothy McGinty, to only six years behind bars. Both cases were handled by the same prosecutor. The only discernible differences between the two defendants were gender and race.
Oh, there was that bit about Moore, that she was driving under suspension and therefore needed to be punished more severely. Only one problem: she was not driving under suspension and the prosecutor evidently knew it. Moore’s license had been reinstated on the very day she killed someone … but she certainly was not driving under suspension. By using that flat-out lie as the rationale for the disparity between the sentences, the criminal justice system is turned into a mockery … a laughing stock, if not for the fact someone is still in prison for far too long.
Now, fast forward to last week when 29-year-old Jennifer Kearney — who also got drunk, drove the wrong way on I-90 in the early morning hours of July 1, 2011, striking and killing a motorcyclist — was sentenced for her crime: Three years behind bars.
Now I’m not at all outraged by the sentence Kearney received … as a first-time offender it could be considered a just one. What I’m outraged about is the sentences of the other defendants — especially Moore’s (who was also a first-time offender) — that were far too harsh. The glaring disparity between the length of the sentences in these three cases sickens the stomach.
I’m not defending drunk drivers … I personally feel repeat offenders should be locked away for a long, long time (and taken out of circulation far sooner than the eighth or ninth DUI case) … until they no longer pose a threat to society.
But every citizen who claims to love liberty, democracy and fair play should be up in arms over a so-called justice system that perpetrates such travesties as these wildly differing sentences … which turn Lady Justice into nothing but a cheap, two-bit whore.
The problem of course is that our liberties have been chipped away so insidiously over time we’ve come to view this state of affairs as the norm so we don’t protest injustice when it stares us squarely in the face. But we can’t have such a deeply flawed criminal justice system, do nothing about it, and then still wrap ourselves in the American flag and brag to the rest of the world what a great democracy we have. Something’s broken and we need to fix it.
Many legal scholars have been saying for some time now that our justice system needs a complete, top-to-bottom overhaul (read Harvard Law Professor William J. Stuntz’s brilliant book Collapse of American Criminal Justice, but be prepared to get fighting mad) and there’s supposedly talk in Washington legal circles that Obama’s second term just might be the time for a much-needed course correction. Cases like the aforementioned travesty certainly should point us in that direction.
The So-called War on Drugs
By looking to the west signs of intelligent life can be spotted on the frontlines of America’s longest running conflict: The 40-year-old (and counting) War on Drugs. Two states, Colorado and Washington, both approved marijuana for recreational use, but nationwide, pundits are holding their collective breath, waiting to see what the feds are going to do since the DEA still lists ganja as a dangerous (and illegal) drug … right up there with heroin.
I’m betting the feds will do absolutely nothing; they’ll pretend they don’t even know the two states passed the liberal laws. By totally ignoring the issue, Obama’s administration doesn’t have to agree or disagree with it.
It’s a good bet such laws will soon find their way onto the ballot in other states, but one way to stem the tide of damage done to families by busting people for pot is for prosecutors to follow the lead of Boulder County, CO, District Attorney Stan Garnett who said in a 60 Minutes interview “… it’s virtually impossible to impanel a jury on a marijuana case here, let alone get a conviction. What we deal with is what prosecutors call jury nullification, where juries say, ‘I know what the law is, but I’m not going to follow it.’ This community has made it very clear that criminal enforcement of marijuana is not something they want me to spend any time on.”
Tim McGinty, if he really wants to be a trailblazer, could send a message to local law enforcement to quit bringing him petty pot cases … that he won’t take them to the grand jury. He could base his decision on the logic that it will save the county money … he won’t need as many prosecutors if he quits prosecuting nickel-bag cases as if they’re major drugs busts … just so some cops can make a bunch of overtime showing up in court.
During Prohibition there were large pockets of resistance to the wrongheaded and ineffective law of the land that made the manufacture and consumption of alcohol illegal. In the hills and hollers of Kentucky, Tennessee and other parts of the south, backwoods distilleries operated with virtual impunity, almost openly.
Indeed, because of the smoke created in the whiskey-making process it was exceptionally easy for the hated government “revenueers” to spot stills … but getting convictions for violating the 18th Amendment was entirely another matter. Juries simply nullified the government’s charges by returning “not guilty” verdicts in case after case … no matter the evidence. Eventually the arrests ceased; the government agents knew their efforts were useless.
In retrospect, this was citizens acting in the best American tradition by refusing to harm their fellow countrymen by convicting them of breaking nonsensical laws at the behest of a non-thinking government run amok. They acted in the manner the framers of our Constitution intended. In the end, when government overreaches and needlessly destroys lives — as it has in the long-running drug war — it’s up to the people to take matters into their own hands and put a stop to it. We only need to look to the west.
What Took So Long?
The young pages that work for House and Senate members supposedly have a term for what brought Jesse Jackson Jr.’s life tumbling down around his ears: It’s called “going purple.” Purple being the color of royalty in cultures going back thousands of years, the phrase connotes the learned arrogance of elected officials in Washington who, after too many terms in office, begin believing themselves somehow entitled.
As one page put it, “… when every door is opened for them, when all they have to do is lift a finger and an eager staffer is at their side to do their bidding, they begin to think they are royalty.” Indeed.
And that feeling is greatly enhanced by the rules under which they serve: It’s virtually impossible to get rid of a member of Congress since they’ve stacked the deck so much in their own favor.
Respected journalist James Warren makes the case that something is amiss in an insightful article on The Daily Beast: read it here. (As a matter of full disclosure, I’m a contributing writer for TDB).
In the article, Warren points out that back in the ‘30s one senator, Carter Glass, managed to serve four years without setting foot in Washington … despite calls for his resignation; and there have been other cases too numerous to mention over the years.
The sheer arrogance of an elected official buying his strumpet a $40,000 wristwatch assures that history will not be treating Jackson, Jr. kindly … nor should it. Here was a man born on third base and all he had to do in life was to take a leisurely stroll towards home plate to come up a winner … but nooooo, he wanted to be a mack daddy instead. What a waste of talent, but more importantly, how do we force Congress to change the rules that allow members to hang around forever when the handwriting that something is wrong is so clearly on the wall?
From Cool Cleveland correspondent Mansfield B. Frazier mansfieldfATgmail.com. Frazier’s From Behind The Wall: Commentary on Crime, Punishment, Race and the Underclass by a Prison Inmate is available again in hardback. Snag your copy and have it signed by the author by visiting http://www.neighborhoodsolutionsinc.com.