I have watched almost every episode of Law & Order, including the UK version. I learned a lot of things, like always ask for a lawyer, even if you’re not guilty and, when visiting New York City, never look behind trucks or dumpsters because you will always find a dead body. I also knew that Lenny Briscoe and Jack McCoy would always do the right thing in the name of justice.
I know life isn’t a television show and have accepted that Jeremy Sisto will not be knocking on my door to ask about my neighbor. In the real world, justice is fleeting for those who need it most. All too often it is because the people who run the system — the people in who we place our trust — are the ones perverting the course of justice.
13-year-old Matthew’s world was upended when he got in a fight with his mother’s boyfriend. Her boyfriend stood a good two feet taller and had over a hundred pounds on him. No one was hurt, but his mother called the police and asked to file assault charges…against her son. In a series of unbelievable events, Matthew ended up spending 48 days in a juvenile detention center for the heinous crime of throwing a steak at his mother’s boyfriend.
Matthew’s story, as well as many others, are chronicled in William Ecenbarger’s 2012 book, “Kids for Cash: Two Judges, Thousands of Children, and a $2.6 Million Kickback Scheme,” where he relays the story he covered as a journalist for the Philadelphia Inquirer of how Judge Mark Ciaverella and county president judge Michael Conahan used their positions for personal financial gain.
From 2003-2008, more than 2,500 juveniles were sent to a for-profit detention center for minor offenses worthy of no more than a simple stern talking to and an understanding that kids are just kids. Ciaverella received over $1 million dollars in kickbacks (or as he called them, “legitimate finder’s fees“) from the private prison for remanding the juveniles to their facility.
Ciavarella was sentenced in August 2011 to 28 years in prison and ordered to pay $1.2 million in restitution. The others involved in the scheme were also sentenced to prison and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court dismissed all the cases of the juveniles that were sentenced by Ciaverella and ordered their records expunged.
Sometimes, injustice is done not for money, but for the win.
Michael Morton was convicted in Williams County, Texas for the 1987 murder of his wife, Christine. In 2011, DNA evidence proved his innocence and he was freed after serving 25 years in prison. In March 2013, another suspect was identified and convicted for the murder of Morton’s wife.
District Judge Ken Anderson was a popular prosecutor for 16 years when he joined the bench in 2002. On April 19, 2013, Judge Anderson was taken into custody on felony criminal contempt and tampering charges for failing to turn over two key pieces of evidence that pointed to Michael Morton’s innocence. He was the prosecutor during the trial that convicted Morton of his wife’s murder.
Unlike Mark Ciaverella, there is no indication that Ken Anderson did this for money. Still, you have to wonder how many others have suffered due to Ken Anderson’s win at any cost approach.
Private for-profit prisons are a multi-billion dollar industry, bolstered by an increase in prisoners and lengths of sentences, both of which are a direct result of the industry’s multi-million dollar lobbying efforts. Their quest to further increase the prison population, and their profits, has further corrupted the system by finding willing partners within. Partners like Mark Ciaverella and (indirectly) Ken Anderson.
What is being done to stop the destruction of justice in America?
In 1990, Illinois passed a law that banned privately run state prisons. The logic was that “denying an individual’s freedom of movement based on the commission of a crime is a heavy responsibility that shouldn’t be relegated to private companies.” It was updated in 2011 to include county jails, and in 2012 a bill was passed that “would ban units of government in Illinois from contracting with private companies to house federal prisoners.”
Fortunately for the private prison industry, many states aren’t as enlightened as Illinois.
In an attempt to get a handle on overzealous prosecutors, the Innocence Project launched the Prosecutorial Oversight campaign in 2012 to “to bring better oversight and accountability over prosecutors.” In a five year study of six states, they found that it is rare for any prosecutor, or judge, to be punished, or even charged with misconduct related to cases. It’s the proverbial “fox guarding the hen house.” Most aren’t keen to punish their own.
Membership in the club that is systematically destroying justice in America for profit and personal gain has its privileges. Unfortunately, the victims are paying the price.
Just ask Michael and Matthew.
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