Justice

Justice can be an elusive concept. Laws can be so vague that they mean whatever a prosecutor wants. A psychologist had a look and came up with answers, or should that be issues? Birdman comments. See another view from TIME at Six Convicts. Sadly the book is out of print. As to the connections between law and justice see Judicial Corruption. When politicians get involved things are different. The Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Commission is busy proving that.

 

Injustice of the Justice System Circa 1948

Compiled by John 'Birdman' Bryant

 From My Six Convicts. a Psychologist's Three Years in Fort Leavenworth Prison
, by Donald Powell Wilson
(Rinehart and Co, 1948): Selected parts of pp. 187-194

If [an] offense appears on the books of both states, the disproportionate sentences of the two states are sometimes staggering. Two men in different states are guilty of arson. The prisoner in Alabama is in for one year, the prisoner in North Carolina for forty years. Perjury carries four years in Connecticut, twenty years in New York, life in Maine, death in Missouri, five hundred dollars and forty lashes in Delaware. West Virginia punishes bigamy sixteen times as severely as incest. Wyoming and Colorado punish incest ten times more severely than bigamy.

Another practice that feeds the convict's belief that crime is not absolute, but relative, is the fine system. "$5,000 or three years, $300 or ninety days."

Although debtor's prisons were theoretically abandoned a century ago, one man out of two (57%) in prisons, jails and penitentiaries is serving a sentence because of debt -- he can't pay a fine. Many of the remaining 43% would gladly have paid a fine, but they had the bad luck to be sentenced by a judge who did not levy fines. A judge may or may not levy fines, may or may not impose a sentence, or both a sentence and a fine, at his own discretion.

It would be difficult to persuade a prisoner that a fine represents punishment in the sense that imprisonment does. Why, he would ask, does every man who can, pay? And why, when a fine is imposed, does the money go into public coffers instead of into some form of restitution for the offense committed? One man pays a fine and goes home to his family. Another goes to prison, his and his family's life ruined..... England and Scotland have solved the problem of fines by the simple expedient of installment payment. Imprisonment for non-payment of fines in England exceeded 80,000 in 1913, but dropped to 11,000 in 1933, the latter representing largely unemployed paupers. It seems odd that America, with its mania for installment buying, has not applied this concept to its courts. Nearly a fourth of American imprisonments for inability to pay fines are for amounts less than ten dollars, and sixty percent for less than twenty dollars. This is certainly punishment for poverty.

The fact that laws change in point of time, and have become too cumbersome to be prosecuted, may simply be the toll of civilization and the caprice of the written law. But the matter of fines-versus-sentence is considerably more sinister in its implications. Is a man to pay for his crimes or his poverty? For his crimes, or for getting caught? These two questions gain momentum in the light of prosecution and conviction records. The famous reports of the Wickersham and Seabury commissions and of the Committee of Fifteen published early in the thirties were avidly read by the literate prisoners then, and probably still are. These reports indicated that in large cities at that time a man had an 85% chance of escaping arrest, a 98% chance of escaping conviction, and a 99% chance of escaping punishment. Of 257 gang murders in Chicago in the regime of Mayor Bill Thompson and Al Capone, not a single conviction resulted. Even in smaller cities with the best conviction records of that decade, only 10% of crimes resulted in conviction. Current percentages are not much improved.....

The 1949 Report covering 1948 shows spectacular increases in police "activity" in 1,654 American cities: there were over 14 1/2 million arrests, of which 12 million were for parking, traffic and highway violations, and another million and a half for drunkenness, disorderly conduct and prostitution. However, for this large number there were only three-fourths of a million "fingerprint" arrests: those in which the police wanted to check on suspicious characters, or get vagrants, drunks and prostitutes on record, or where the offense seemed serious enough to warrant further data from the FBI fingerprint records.

The most confusing presentation of percentages appears in the Reports under offenses "Cleared By Arrest." The tables and pictograms claim that from 22% to 90% of "serious" crimes are cleared in this way. The text, however, explains that "the term `cleared by arrest' ordinarily means that one or more offenders have been arrested and made available for prosecution." This does not mean that the suspects are guilty, or that there is an actual trial. They are only held and charged. In American cities, to assemble suspects for eventual "cleared by arrest" charges means inefficient trial-and-error arrests. While criminologists decry this sorry practice, my six men, by turns, scoffed and chortled at the police indiscriminately "running in" suspects. Investigations indicate that about half of all arrests are false and result in discharge. Some cities have reached a peak of ninety percent of arrested suspects being released without charge. Both my men and criminologists labeled this practice as kidnapping. In fact, in the only table of releases listed in the Reports of 1949, based on the population of certain cities totalling 33 million, over one million arrested persons were released. This is quite in contrast to the efficiency of the Postal Department inspectors, who gather evidence first and then unerringly arrest the offender.

The Uniform Crime Reports state that 58% of annual fingerprint arrests are of recidivists. But what does not appear is the kind of recidivist that lies back of such figures. The Los Angeles Times for February 20, 195o ran a feature on the world's largest arraignment court in that city, highlighting the "regular customers," some of whom have been arrested over 250 times and many of whom return to court every few days, depending on the length of their sentence. They are drunks, prostitutes, aments, vagrants, panhandlers-derelicts who obviously are not responding to jail sentences.

It is the belief of Mr. Hoover, director of the FBI, that the volume of arrests throughout the nation indicates the extent of police activity. The statement cannot be challenged in the light of 14 1/2 million arrests in 1,654 of our cities in 1948. But one may perhaps offer his condolences to the hard-working traffic cop.

Other evils affecting the convict are stool pigeons, false arrests, bail bonds and fixed sentences -- rackets which go hand-in-hand in most large cities in a sorry parade of justice. While there are not many innocent men in the penitentiary, the prisoner's frequent complaint, "I been framed," cannot be too quickly dismissed. Easy preys to false arrest and casual conviction without trial are convicts like Weary Willie and "I.Q.33" whom Scott turned up in his testing. These are sometimes picked up by the police as a convenient way to close a case lingering on the blotter, and the convict finds himself in prison before he knows what has happened. Sanford Bates, the first superintendent of the Bureau of Prisons formed in 1930, himself reports the case of an ignorant mountain boy whose conviction was railroaded by a Federal marshal after getting the boy to "plead guilty to not doing it" on the day the revenuers raided a still. "Ah jes' pleaded guilty to not bein' dar, but heah ah is." One estimate claims that nearly one-third of a prison population is serving time for offenses they did not technically commit. They are in on false charges. Either the offender agreed to plead guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for a fixed sentence, or he was actually framed by a police stool pigeon; that is, a stool pigeon in the employ of the police.

The procuring of a fixed sentence is called bargaining. If the district attorney's office knows its case is weak, it assures its conviction records by throwing a scare into the offender, urging him to plead guilty to a lesser offense in return for a lighter fixed sentence and thus avoid coming to trial. This sounds good to the uninitiated. The offense may be one that the offender actually did commit in the past, or it may represent an unsolved case on the police blotter. Sometimes it is one which is concocted on the spot. The offense to which the man pleads guilty may not even be in the same category as his actual crime.

This procedure accomplishes several things. It increases the conviction records of the district attorney and those of the police department. The offender gets off with a lighter pre-agreed sentence, and often the fixing attorney and all concerned are the richer. A notorious case of this kind involved a highjacker who looted a truck of $30,000 worth of silk. The charge was armed robbery, subject to a sentence of ten years to life. The highjacker pleaded guilty to petty larceny, was fined one dollar and given one year in prison. Al Capone, when he was finally apprehended, bargained for an eighteen-month sentence on a rum-running charge and expected never to come to trial. He might never have served the seven of his ten-year sentence, if he had not prematurely and publicly boasted of the fix, thus forcing the judge's hand.

A major stumbling block in the way of a convict's developing a respect for the law is society's approval of the stool pigeon. The use of a stool pigeon in the pay of the police and vice squads in most of our large cities is a common device in effecting false arrests. It is a practice used frequently to apprehend the small-time criminal who otherwise eludes the police. The stool pigeon, in one of his varied capacities, is given marked money or stolen goods to place on the person of a victim, who is then immediately frisked by detectives or police lying in wait. What possible defense can such a victim make? The stool pigeon is not only paid, but protected in the continuation of his own pickpocketing, dope peddling or pimping racket as long as he is valuable to police in his snitches. There after he is sometimes arrested and sentenced himself.. It's a hard life. . . . England uses no stool pigeons....

 

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