MANSFIELD: The End of an Era? Perhaps.

By Mansfield Frazier

Mama, take this badge off of me
I can’t use it anymore.
It’s gettin’ dark, too dark to see
I feel I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door.
-Bob Dylan

When Stephanie Tubbs Jones out-maneuvered and out-politicked all opponents to win the coveted prosecutor’s job back in 1991, the Westside Irish political machine vowed to never again allow what they viewed as an “outsider” — someone not handpicked by them — to hold so powerful a position in Cuyahoga County. With Bill Mason (who, by the way, is not of Irish descent) at the helm, indeed the machine has — with few exceptions — been a controlling factor in every county election since then… especially those for judgeships.

And county reform did nothing to curb the machine’s power — after all, reforming government is totally different from reforming politics, which is a far more difficult task to accomplish and takes decades rather than one election cycle. As some have wryly noted (and took exception to), the same insider political mechanism (and machinations) that’s always been in place were again used to transfer power to Mason’s successor, Tim McGinty. Mason steps down a few months early so Democratic Party insiders can handpick his successor. “I thought we went through county reform to put an end to that kind of machine party manipulations?” one observer recently queried, in an exasperated fashion. “Fat chance of that,” I replied.

Mason’s career, however, has a touch of Greek tragedy swirling around it as the end nears. A bright, gifted lawyer, he early on in his career rightfully could have been dubbed the “James Brown of Cuyahoga County”… since he was far and away the hardest working man in local politics. But, alas, he also was — in a sense — a victim of the times he rose to power in.

He came into office 14 years ago with high hopes of moving up the political ladder to become a U.S. senator, or perhaps governor. But this was a time of Strum und Drang in American criminal justice — the height of the dark period when our nation was about the business of building what would eventually become the largest carceral system the world has ever known. And it was up to local county prosecutors nationwide to feed the beast that was being created if it were to survive… and Mason complied and did his part with alacrity — better yet, even gusto.

While the U.S. population has increased approximately 2.8 times since the 1920s, the country’s prison population has increased 20 times, with the bulk of that increase coming after 1980. And when governors like Michigan’s Jennifer Granholm proposed commonsense changes to reduce prison overcrowding, the state’s prison guard’s union picketed her residence, complaining such reforms would cause job loss.

Not satisfied with simply locking up dangerous people who commit violent crimes (something even fools and Pollyannas agree with doing), in the mid-1980s — as the country took a hard swing to the right — we began locking up non-violent people we were simply mad at, along with addicts of every ilk and stripe (except for wealthy ones) and those with mental disabilities. And those targeted to be subjected to the brutality of a justice system run amok were selected by police with a surgical-like precision: young black males were (and often still are) being sent to prison for the same petty drug crimes young white males are sent to bed with no supper for committing. To wit: Blacks, whites and Hispanics all buy sell and use drugs at the exact same rate — 11 percent of each group’s population, yet blacks are seven times as likely to wind up in prison for drugs as whites, and Hispanics are five times as likely. Yet no prosecutor locally or nationally cares to look at this glaring disparity and ask why. I’ll give you a hint: selective enforcement, the dirty little secret of police departments nationwide.

                                              *   *   *

During the Kennedy Administration — due to some well-crafted lawsuits — it became clear our nation housed far too many people with mental disabilities in institutions… and with assistance these folks could, in most cases, lead a somewhat normal life on the outside. Organizations around the country (such as Eastway in Dayton, OH) were put in place to transition mental patients back into society, and the model worked exceptionally well… that is until funding priorities changed at the national level, resulting in many of these individuals — who were relatively helpless without assistance — being turned out to live on the streets, where they eventually would run afoul of the law.

Today, America’s prisons are the largest mental health warehouses in the world, with a quarter of the prisoners in need of mental health services… something prison staffers are not trained (and in most cases have no inclination) to deliver. When faced with social problems, our policy makers always seem to make the wrong (and ultimately more costly) decision. But it takes willing prosecutors to lock up folks with mental disabilities.

Thus the prison/industrial complex grew by leaps and bounds… to the extent that in the last decade California has built seven new prisons but not one new university — which is the perfect way to insure some other nation will soon supplant as the world’s educational leader. But once private prison corporations started trading in the New York Stock Exchange (funded by outfits like Bain Capital), there was no turning back; the headlong race was on. And to this day no one asks this question: If Corrections Corporation of America’s only “product” is the people it houses in its prisons nationwide, when their stock is traded are they in essence trafficking in human beings? There’s a term for that: slavery.

But a more sophisticated and elaborate “feeder system” was necessary to fuel the prison boom — to feed people into the maw of the criminal justice complex — and that system is comprised of three parts: police who often violate the law by stopping people on the flimsiest of pretexts; prosecutors who are willing to move forward with these “cheap” cases; and the judges who are so afraid of their own reelections they’re willing to send virtually everyone who comes in front of them to prison.

Of course much of the madness could not be occurring if not for a U.S. Supreme Court that, over the last few decades, has stripped away virtually all of the constitutionally guaranteed protections against heavy-handed police and prosecutors, thus tilting the scales of justice too much in favor of Draconian American jurisprudence.

Thankfully, the orgy of incarceration is waning somewhat in the country, if only by the slightest of degrees. But this change of policy has nothing to do with a change of heart and mind… or sense of fairness; it’s just that we’re beginning to realize how costly such foolish policies really are; we drank the Kool-Aid being served by conservatives but now the tax bills for the over-building of prisons and over reliance on incarceration to solve deep-seated social problems are coming due, and in some cases threatening to drive states — most noticeably California — into bankruptcy.

It bears repeating: No one in their right mind wants truly dangerous people roaming free to wreck havoc on society, but much of what we’ve been doing nationally in criminal justice has very little to do with protecting society against crime… it’s about locking away those we prefer not to look at, those we have marginalized. And by doing so, we sometime tend to let dangerous people out of prison too soon, simply to make room for newer prisoners. It’s also, in some red states, about criminalizing as many folks as possible to keep them off the voter rolls.

While some prosecutors around the country — damn few, in actuality — refuse to go along with ham-handed attacks on liberty, most of them (Bill Mason included) are more than willing to do their part to keep the prison boom going strong. Mason came along during the era when the best platform a politician seeking higher office can have in America is one which portrays them as “tough on crime.” They knew the gullible American public is either too dumb or too mentally lazy to differentiate categories of what they label as “crime.”

Degrees of gradation seem to be disappearing as today, people can go to prison for life for cutting off another person’s beard. For life? It appears as if the Amish have become America’s new niggers: Another class of citizens not fully afforded the rights and protections of America’s laws routinely granted to others. But most Americans are too cowardly to raise a question for fear the heavy hand of government will next fall on them for daring to open their mouths in protest. While many folks hereabouts feel Jimmy Dimora was sentenced to far too many years, few will say so. This, dear friend, is the silent slippery slope that surreptitiously leads nations down the dark road into fascism.

The vaulted 92 percent conviction rate Mason likes to boast about as he leaves office was built — in substantial part — on petty, slam-dunk cases, won largely against poor and underclass defendants. So unequal is the power between prosecutor and defendant that it’s akin to the 6th grade schoolyard bully bragging about beating up on kindergartners. Some of the more egregious cases pushed through by Mason’s office were chronicled in a PD series back in the fall of 2010 entitled Presumed Guilty. It’s worth rereading.

But even more shameful than some of these specious prosecutions is the fact that when people are completely exonerated by a judge or jury, if they attempt to have the record of the occurrence purged from the system (after all they were found innocent), county prosecutors object to such requests. Even though the individual is found innocent, prosecutors still want a record of the prosecution to stain the victim for life. And they call this doing justice?

Following is a true example of how our deeply flawed criminal justice system often works: A few years back a cop stopped a woman for jaywalking on 71st and Central Avenue. He discovers a crack pipe in her purse (which he had no right to look into in the first place if she was only jaywalking) and arrests her. At the time, being in possession of a crack pipe was a felony in the City of Cleveland, but a misdemeanor everywhere else in the county. In a minute you’ll understand why.

I suppose the cop wrote on his report that he was “protecting” the woman (after all, once every few hours a vehicle drives down that part of Central Avenue and one might have hit her), but, if this is truly a “crime,” why don’t officers “protect” those folks traversing the busiest jaywalking spot in all of Cleveland: Right outside Police Headquarters where people all day long dart across St. Clair Avenue to reach W. 2nd St., which is the cut-through street commonly used to reach Public Square. Hundreds of tickets an hour could be written (or people protected, take your pick)… but the recipients would not be poor, black, and may or may not be in possession of a crack pipe. But the crack pipe is crucial to this story, read on.

The reason the cop made the stop was financial: he obviously “thought” the woman might be in possession of a crack pipe (an officer with clairvoyance, no less) but “knew” he could be called as a witness in a crack pipe felony case, which, of course, meant overtime for him. Cha-Ching! Keep this up and that new Harley-Davidson would be looking more like a reality all the time.

Everyone in the criminal justice system is aware of the game… the only people who don’t know are the poor, the addicts and the citizens who foot the bill for this kind of nonsense posing as treatment. When a bunch of reentry activists proposed to change Cleveland’s crack pipe laws (and make the “crime” a misdemeanor like it is in the rest of the county), the higher ups in the Police Department fought against it tooth and nail; they didn’t want to knock the officers out of their overtime — that you, the citizens, pay for. Eventually we won the great crack pipe fight and the law was changed.

But in some jurisdictions prosecutors simply talk with police brass and ask them to instruct their officers to quit bringing them such bullshit, meatball cases since they tie up valuable human resources that could be better used elsewhere, fighting real, serious crime. Or, the prosecutor can refuse to pursue such cases (that’s called a “D.A. reject”) thus achieving the same result… but this is something that rarely occurs in Cuyahoga County. Mason’s office, as the saying goes, will “indict a ham sandwich” as long as it improves his numbers… his much ballyhooed “stats.”

Now I know few people really care all that much about a woman being stopped with a crack pipe on Central Avenue, but the question is, what if Bill Mason’s office wasn’t so focused on prosecuting petty cases that built up those “stats”? Could his office have detected or prevented Frank Russo, et al, from picking the county cleaner than a city chicken for all of those years… or would that have required too much heavy legal lifting on cases he might lose, or perhaps the stepping on too many insiders’ toes? We’ll never know.

Blackstone’s Formulation is based on the principle: “better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer”, but modern-day American jurisprudence has turned that premise up-side-down, to the point that any method, fair or foul, is commonly used by prosecutors to secure convictions … and thus keep those numbers up. More than one former prosecutor has told me they left Mason’s office because of the focus on winning took precedent over any other concerns … such as truth and the fair administration of justice. When one former prosecutor apologized to a man he’d wrongly convicted and incarcerated for 13 years, he was chided by other prosecutors who castigated him by saying: “We never apologize.” And indeed they don’t … no matter how egregious the error or harm. It’s safe to say that no prosecutor in the country keeps stats on wrong convictions … they much prefer to bury their mistakes in a prison somewhere.

And, while some members of the criminal defense bar have vigorously opposed the brutal tactics of prosecutors, far too many lawyers are known by the street parlance name of “dump trucks” … they only show up in court to give the process the patina of fairness — and to collect a payday. Some are a disgrace to their profession, and act more as co-prosecutors than defense attorneys.

However, the tactics employed by Bill Mason’s office are certainly not an anomaly nationally … a “win at any and all costs, fairness be damned” mentality has invaded America’s criminal justice system over the last half century … to the degree there’s currently chatter in Washington about a serious reform effort being mounted if President Obama wins a second term. But how much can be accomplished, given the hard right tilt of the U.S. Supreme Court, is yet to be seen.

Recent books such as The New Jim Crow; The Collapse of American Criminal Justice and Texas Tough (all by noted and highly respected legal scholars) set forth the history of our current criminal justice predicament, and all offer commonsense, workable solutions to the inequalities we face. But as long as governors like John Kasich is willing to turn state prisons over to those companies eager to make a profit off of incarceration, county prosecutors around the country will turn Lady Justice into a two-bit whore to keep them filled.

Mason certainly made some innovations during his time as prosecutor, and his record against serious and violent offenders (especially sex offenders) is unmatched. But he never misses an opportunity to take a cheap (and unnecessary) shot at his predecessor by stating how much better the office has operated under his reign.

This kind of hardball, to some extent, lead some in the African-American community to frequently call him a racist. But I know Bill Mason (albeit somewhat from afar) and believe that not to be the case. He’s not a racist, but something far worse: He was an ambitious politician that would send anyone (black or white) down I-71 if he thought it would enhance his political career, which made him far more dangerous than a run-of-the-mill — and usually powerless — racist.

He worked tirelessly and with alacrity to help populate what is now being called the American gulag. The number of people in Ohio’s prisons and on the state’s Death Row is disproportionately from Cuyahoga County, and that’s not by accident. We can only hope and pray that this part of Bill Mason’s legacy is not handed down to the next prosecutor like fine heirloom Irish linen.


From Cool Cleveland correspondent Mansfield B. Frazier 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

Post categories:

2 Responses to “MANSFIELD: The End of an Era? Perhaps.”

  1. Dick Peery

    Mansfield – This is the best you have ever done. Keep it up.

  2. Larry Durstin

    A 92% conviction rate is impressive – if you’re in a police state

Leave a Reply