Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Pernicious Effects Of Power

In our system of "justice" judges have an extreme amount of power vested in their persons and in their role as judges.  The wisdom of vesting so much power in any given individual is a matter for future debate.  For the moment I will simply address the ways in which that power can, and often is, misused and abused.

In the case of the State of North Carolina vs Crystal Mangum Judge Abraham Jones proved himself to be an able jurist in many respects.  He seemed at ease in his position most of the time and he presided over an orderly trial.  This article, however, is not about his strengths, but about my perception of his shortcomings as far as I observed them in that trial.  

Go down to the Durham County Courthouse, the Wake County Courthouse, in fact, go down to any courthouse in any county in this state or in the entire country and you will find that the majority of people who are there to be dealt with by the justice system are black and/or hispanic.  This is NO ACCIDENT.  Nor is it a function of some genetic predisposition of these groups toward lawlessness.  Poverty among these groups is an important but not a deciding factor for why they are so grossly over represented in court caseloads and the national jail and prison populations..  The deciding factors are the criminalization of poverty, the nature of police work (including the so-called War On Drugs), the built in "prejudices" of the courts.

The combination of these forces have brought about a state of affairs in this country where the prisons are full to overflowing and the Prison Industrial Complex has become an economic engine for many struggling communities. This economic interest colors and reinforces the other factors in a self perpetuating cycle. 

Judge Abraham Jones plays his part in this cycle by his insistence that the police can do no wrong.  Throughout Ms. Mangum's trial Judge Jones clearly and without hesitation reiterated his belief that the police are to be trusted as faithful civil servants and that their word is not to be questioned.  This attitude was so extreme that he instructed the defense that the police were not to "be put on trial" in this case.  At every turn the judge favored the police  and made rulings that favored and bolstered the prosecution's case.  Since the prosecution provided no evidence other than the testimony of two police officers the favoring took the form of not allowing the testimony of the police to be impeached in any way, shape or form.  This amounted to a de facto  alliance between the court, the police, and the prosecution.

The danger in this reality is that those least able to protect themselves from the predations of the police are the very same people who end up filling the ever expanding prison system.  The hurdles that must be overcome by persons of modest means are far too high.  Good lawyers cost money and the expenses of fighting charges are onerous when one is working two or three minimum wage jobs. 

Judge Jones, by allying himself with the prosecution viciate's a defendant's presumption of innocence.  This in turn further weights the scales of justice against the accused and, in essence, makes a mockery of our justice system.  Conditions such as these are exactly what we condemn in "third world" countries who have "not yet developed a mature judiciary".  

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