By Patricia Padurean
I don’t know how much time you spend on white supremacist blogs, but they are an education. In anticipation of my first meeting with a client who was both an alleged murderer and a white supremacist, I found Stormfront, a charming forum of “racial realists and idealists.” Though completely unconnected to my client, I fell into a thread about Jewish food. To hear these people tell it, the Jews have almost earned their white people stripes, though some work remains to be done.
HailTheNewDawn put it succinctly and poetically when he wrote:
“I love to eat and cook. I can’t live in a rich man’s house, or drive a rich man’s car, or spend a rich man’s money. I can, however, buy a $25 steak and a $30 bottle of wine, savor the aromas and flavors while looking at a beautiful white woman across the table in my kitchen.
The jews drop a fish into acid and call it cuisine.”
What I expected to encounter when I walked into that cell to meet my client was a bagel-hating aggressive man covered in swastika tattoos whose physiognomy somehow magically betrayed the fact that he was a killer. I certainly didn’t expect a shy man who hid his face in his hands in embarrassment after confessing that instead of having steady girlfriends he has casual sex with multiple women.
More than anything else, that one-hour meeting opened my eyes to how quick we are to jump at the opportunity to judge people going through the criminal justice system. We label defendants as “criminals” long before convictions. Listen to any political debate within any party and you’ll find the audience nodding enthusiastically to wave after wave of spitting diatribes against “dangerous criminals” and the new laws that will keep them off our streets and away from your adorable children. Never mind the fact that they all live on those same streets and have children of their own. No, “criminals” are lurking around every corner, waiting to prey upon you, your family, and your material possessions. They are the comic book villains of American society. But America isn’t a comic book and people charged with or convicted of crimes can’t all be painted with the same brush.
Drug offenses account for just over half of the US prison population, and let’s not kid ourselves that these 100,000 people are all Stringer Bell type criminal masterminds. Basically, if you’ve ever walked down the street with weed in your pocket, there is nothing separating you from the average “dangerous criminal” other than your blind luck at not having been caught. If you’ve ever gotten into an argument on a bus and slapped someone for taking your seat, you have committed a criminal offense. If you have ever stolen an ice cream sandwich from a gas station, the American right and left are out to get you. These are all real cases that I have seen go through the system. Most of these defendants now have criminal records and, as far as the world is concerned, they are the dangerous elements of society. We, the rest of society, strip them of job opportunities and respect, ensuring that the most attractive way they’ll have of getting by is committing more petty crimes which in time, depending on how dire their circumstances are, might escalate into more serious offenses. I’m not saying people who violate criminal statutes are not responsible for their own actions, but we should have a serious look at how our attitudes and actions contribute to this culture of demonization.
Theoretically, our criminal justice system is designed to provide people with due process and then release them cleanly once they have served their time. But with services that allow you to pinpoint who in your neighborhood has a criminal record and precisely which crimes they have been convicted of, we ensure that people’s sentences are never truly over and that we always judge others by the worst choices they have made.
Obviously there are some actually dangerous criminals out there, but the vast majority of cases in the system are piddling little offenses like drug possession because it’s easy to get convictions and District Attorneys can run for re-election on their great numbers with the tagline of being tough on crime and unaccommodating to criminals. And the more this cycle turns, the more it justifies overblown rhetoric about how important it is to separate the criminals from the innocents, like if you were to pour all of society into a beaker, it would separate cleanly into oil and water. The reality is that we all live together and we all break the law together. Perhaps we should not be quite so quick to judge.