Poverty has been criminalized. There is simply no doubt anymore that this is a fact. In our society, we pass laws demanding welfare recipients pass drug tests that they pay for out of their own pockets before we will provide them with financial assistance; we cut off unemployment benefits at 26 weeks or less despite the continuing difficultly many have at finding full time, living wage jobs in that amount of time; we put caps on the number of children a parent can have while on public subsidies while at the same time cutting off funding to groups that will help those parents prevent pregnancy if that is what they wish to do; and many states spend more money on prisons than schools.
Private companies are helping to send poor people to prison over small debts, and homeless Arizona mother Shanesha Taylor was just released after 10 days in jail, and is still being charged with child endangerment for leaving her baby and toddler in a car while on a job interview because she was unable to find someone to watch them.
The prison system has always been a place of inequality fueled mostly by race, class and economics. Now, just as the income gap is getting even wider between the rich and poor, we are seeing the divide between those who end up prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and those who walk with just a slap on the wrist increasing, too.
Here are 4 instances where the perpetrators served no time in jail, in comparison to Taylor, who was trying to find a way to get her family out of a hopeless situation.
1) Austin Smith Clem: Convicted by jury of raping a 14-year-old, this Tennessee man was lucky enough to get a judge who decided he would be best served in a community program for non-violent offenders. But that was supposed to be punishment enough since, after all, he was also going to be on probation and that was highly inconvenient. As his lawyer told Mother Jones, “‘[Clem's] lifestyle for the next six years is going to be very controlled…If he goes to a party and they’re serving beer, he can’t say, ‘Can I have one?’ If he wanted to go across the Tennessee line, which as the crow flies is eight or nine miles from his house, and buy a lottery ticket, he can’t do that…It’s not a slap on the wrist.’”
2) Robert H. Richards IV: A trust fund grandchild of the Du Pont family, Richards was charged with two counts of second-degree rape for molestation of his then 3-year-old daughter. He eventually admitted to the crime, which should have carried a minimum 2 years in jail for each charge, but instead, “He avoided mandatory prison time by pleading guilty to a single count of fourth-degree rape,” reports USA Today. The deal allowed him to avoid a mandatory minimum and substituted Level II probation. According to court reports, the judge was concerned Richards “will not fare well” in prison.
3) Ethan Couch: “Will not fair well” is apparently the common descriptor for “too privileged for jail,” but it took until this year for a lawyer to give it an official term – “affluenza.” It was affluenza that caused Texas teen Ethan Couch to drive drunk, killing four people, while assuming he was above the law. He was right. Thanks to the help of his lawyer and a lenient judge Couch was given 10 years probation because, if you are too wealthy to understand there are consequences to your actions, you are apparently too wealthy to be subject to those consequences.
4) Wall Street. Yes, pretty much everyone: The economic crisis was primarily caused by big banks breaking every rule there was, from insider trading to pushing loans they knew people couldn’t afford, bundling funds and more. Yet most of the people who got rich off of this also got off with no jail time.”[I]t’s shocking that for a crisis that drove the global economy off a cliff, caused millions of people to lose their homes and generally spread mass human misery to almost every corner of the earth there is no defining prosecution,” wrote Neil Irwin at the Washington Post. “No man or woman who led one of the firms directly culpable for the catastrophe has been put in a prison-orange jumpsuit.”
Who is getting jail time? The people who are still suffering from the effects of our economic crisis and our massive income gap. People like Shanesha Taylor. And they are the ones who are being torn from their families and being put in prison.
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