In States Where They Lose Voting Rights, ex-Felons Should Not Pay Taxes


I first learned about many of the principles behind the United States government while watching cartoons on Saturday mornings, on Schoolhouse Rock.  These cartoon shorts are available to own, and if you have kids, I strongly encourage you to make that investment.  In any case, on a particular History Rock episode about the Declaration of Independence, I first heard of the concept of taxation without representation, as one of the major complaints that led the American colonists to rebel against the government of Great Britain.  If I recall the exact quote from that cartoon, it said, “That’s called taxation without representation…and it’s not fair.”  Having learned at least a little bit more about the concept in the intervening years, I’ve decided that I agree, and I think most people in America would concur.  How can a person reasonably and ethically be forced to pay for the activities of a government in which they have no ability to participate?

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We Need to Socialize–Fully–the Criminal Justice System!

I’m not a huge fan of socialism in most things.  Not that there aren’t social programs that are good, in principle, to protect all citizens from the unpredictable vicissitudes of fate.  In general, regrettably, governments tend to do many things poorly and inefficiently (although, as someone who grew up in the Detroit area, I know that big corporations can often be just as lacking in that area as governments, and just as immune to internal correction).  However, there is one area of life in which I think it is a complete travesty that there is anything but complete socialization, and that area is the criminal justice system.

I can tolerate the use of privately employed attorneys in civil cases–though just barely, and arguments can be made that money unfairly sways matters even in such venues (Your comments on that notion would be welcome).  However, it is utterly unconscionable that private attorneys are ever allowed in the criminal justice system.

Our court system itself is of course utterly antiquated.  It has more in common with medieval jousting matches to determine guilt or innocence than it has with any honest attempt to find the truth of any particular matter.  In a typical court proceeding, the person who has the best attorney, or team, is the one most likely to win.  And that usually means that the person with the most money wins.  It’s not true universally, of course, but it is a strongly dispositive factor.  Consider the O.J. Simpson trial:  Would O.J. likely have been acquitted had he been represented by a public defender?  I think we can all agree that the answer is “No.”  Well, why should he have had any better chance of winning than any other man charged with murdering his wife and her friend?  Why should a person’s individual wealth have any bearing on the quality of defense they receive in a criminal case?

The argument can, and probably will, be made that make all defendants rely on the public defender’s office would simply mean that even those with money will face the same ridiculous miscarriages of justice, the same hobbled defense, as a non-wealthy person does when charged with a criminal offense.  To this, I say, “Good!”  Maybe if a few of the movers and shakers of society realize just how horrible the situation is for a non-wealthy person who is charged with any crime in America, they will see to it that changes are made.  Maybe they will see to it that defendants in criminal cases get at least as many resources applied to them as the prosecutor’s office has to bring to bear (and do recall that the prosecution has not only the power of their office, but also that the resources of all pertinent police forces are more or less at their disposal…something that certainly cannot be said for any defendant).

The hallmark of our criminal justice system is supposed to be that a person is innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.  Given that presumption, we must be scrupulous to err on the side of the defendant.  The state has tremendous, monolithic power, and can destroy the lives of citizens almost with impunity by means of simply bringing a criminal prosecution, whatever the outcome.  Given this fact, and the supposed basis of our criminal justice system, all biases should be in favor of the accused.  Clearly this is not the case; if it were, the United States would not have five times its share of the world’s prisoners based on population…the largest number of prisoners in absolute numbers and per capita.  This is to say nothing of the outrageous inequality in the application of criminal justice to minorities.  This would be at least partly rectified by having the wealthy receive the same defense as the poor, since minorities, in general, are less likely to be wealthy than their counterparts.

Of course, the privatization of prisons absolutely has to stop as part of this process.  It appears simply impossible for inappropriate bias not to be introduced into a system when a for-profit interest becomes involved in it (See the ACLU’s report from 2012 here).  In general, I see government itself as a necessary evil, but it is necessary, precisely because human nature has not yet reached a state of development where we can be trusted to do many things honestly and justly if our personal interests are engaged.  But when we give our governments certain powers, and those powers are then put at the disposal of private interests, who have their own monetary gain at heart rather than the achievement of actual justice, it is perfectly predictable for disaster to occur.

How comfortable would we all be if police departments were privately run?  What if the degree of one’s protection by law enforcement were overtly and explicitly dependent upon one’s financial power (as opposed to being only implicitly so, as it is now)?  How safe would you feel?  What if you had to pay a fee for services, or pay to become a member of some club in order to have the police investigate, say, your stolen car…or the murder of one of your family members?  I think we can all agree that this is not a system under which we would hope to live, where the power of law enforcement works only for the highest bidder.

So, why should the quality of a person’s defense against charges of crime be dependent upon the financial resources one can bring to bear?  Even if it were true that every person’s financial status were dependent upon the quality of their character and their personal ability, even if all fortunes were honestly and openly made in truly fair trade–a notion that veers away from mere fiction into the realm of wildest fantasy–there would still be no justification for giving the financially successful better defense against charges of criminal activity than a person who was not successful.  There is no data to demonstrate that financial success is inversely correlated with degree of criminality, and in reality, the correlation is often a positive one.

Of course, depriving individuals of the ability to hire their own criminal defense attorneys would further drain the budgets and other resources of our court systems; this would be a good thing.  It would help force us, as a society, to do a better job of prioritizing our application of police and prosecutorial (and thus also defense) resources–to decide how important it was, for example, to arrest people for possession of marijuana or even of more powerful drugs, when they have not taken any action that brings harm to any other person.  Needless to say, in applying such a policy, we must avoid the pitfall of simply increasing the use of plea bargaining to deal with such resource burdens, since that system is, by nature, biased and unjust, a criminal process in its own right (see my blog on the subject here).

The changes I call for are drastic, I know.  I don’t apologize for that, and I will likely continue to call for even more such changes as time goes by.  Our system is drastically malfunctioning, drastically inefficient, and drastically unjust.  It must be changed, overhauled, or completely replaced with something better, if we wish to have the right to continue to call America a free society.

The above post is actually a re-posting of an entry I originally posted in my other blog:  Justice the American Way, which can be found here.  I am reposting it here just be sure that those who want to read it and follow me here are aware of it.  I will only be doing this for a bit, however.  I want to try to keep my political philosphy/criminal justice postings separate from those about writing, publishing, and other generally more positive things.  That’s why I made the new blog.  If you are interested in such topics, by all means, do follow that blog.

I have an earlier post there–“In States Where They Lose the Right to Vote, ex-Felons Should Not Pay Taxes“–which I have not reposted here, but I invite you to read it, nevertheless.

On unrelated matters, Mark Red: Chapter 15 should be released next weekend, or possibly before.  Then, within a few weeks, I’m going to be releasing “Welcome to Paradox City:  Three Dark Tales.”  I’m excited about it.  I hope you’ll be excited, too.


The plea bargain system is a sadistic game of extortion


Imagine the following scenario:

You are being held hostage  by a group of armed men and women.  You know they are a very large and well-financed group, and that escape is nearly impossible.  Representatives of this organization–a few of whom even claim to be working to protect you–give you the following choice:  You may agree to be their prisoner for a specific amount of time, perhaps a few months, perhaps a few years.  You will also be giving up most or all of your material possessions, agreeing to proclaim publicly that you have done some terrible deed to earn this captivity–thus destroying your good reputation, if you have one–and even relinquishing some of your human rights.  The alternative is to agree to play a twisted, sadistic, and highly rigged game, one which you have very little chance of winning; even your own so-called allies assure you of this fact.  They tell you bluntly that the game is stacked horrifically against you, and that your ruin will be sought assiduously by your opponents, using all of their considerable resources.  If you lose, they will keep you prisoner for a far longer period of time than you had been offered–perhaps even for the rest of your natural life, and your imprisonment will entail risks to your health and the risk of death–and you will lose all that you would have agreed to give up anyway.  The choice is yours.

What would you do?

This is the choice faced by those who find themselves in the American criminal justice system and are offered a plea bargain.

The plea bargain system, for those of you who are unfamiliar with it, is essentially the process I have described above.  An accused criminal (already assumed guilty by the State, whose Prosecutors are tasked with winning, not with actually finding the truth), is given the option of pleading to a specific charge and agreeing to the imprisonment and/or other punishment entailed therein.  If the accused does not agree, he or she is assured by the State that they will seek the harshest possible sentence available to them under the law, and they have the influence to make it stick.

Some might currently be thinking, “Well, but the accused has the right to legal representation,” and this is, technically, true.  However, the Prosecution works within the criminal justice system every day, all day (except weekends and holidays, of course), and thus knows the ins and outs of the judicial process better than almost anybody else.  They have political pull, they know the judges…and they know the police, who can be relied upon to go along with their prosecution, since the police and the Prosecutors depend upon each other to achieve their goals and thus to move up in their particular careers.  If one has a great deal of money, of course–and I do mean a great deal–one can hire a private defense attorney, but most of those who are brought before the criminal justice system do not fall into that category.  The usual suspects are, instead, relegated to the Public Defender’s office.

I have serious respect for the Public Defenders, as a general rule.  They take on a thankless and even reviled role, which many of them do for purely idealistic reasons, believing (unlike a good fraction of their counterparts) that every person is innocent until proven guilty, and deserves a fair trial with a vigorous defense.  Unfortunately, individual Public Defenders tend to have ridiculous numbers of cases–measuring into the hundreds at a time–and lower budgets than the Prosecutors’ offices have.  This fact, of course, runs counter, in principle, to the very idea of “innocent until proven guilty”.  If we were living by that moral code as a society, we would surely give our Public Defenders better resources than their opponents, who after all have their own budgets in addition to the help of local law enforcement.

According to the Constitutional Rights Foundation, more than 90% of all criminal cases never go to trial, but are instead settled with a plea bargain.  This is often seen as a good thing for the defendant, a way for them to reduce their potential sentence.  However, what it really represents is a means by which the State can achieve the conviction of an accused citizen without ever having to go to the trouble of proving their case.  This is especially true when the accused comes from a lower socio-economic background, but it is by no means confined to that group. Any person who finds him or herself brought before the courts is, of course, terrified…especially one who is innocent, ironically enough.  Even the reasonably wealthy do not have resources in the same league as the vast, monolithic, and merciless machine which is the State’s criminal justice system.  The accused in a criminal proceeding faces a dilemma rather akin to being given the choice of either playing a round of Russian roulette or being shot outright.  It is impossible for a defendant to make a rational, honest decision in his or her own best interest in such a situation.  And though Defense attorneys are there to help, they are, as I said, overworked and underfunded.  In addition, Defenders have to see and work with the Prosecutors day in and day out.  They tend not to make waves over what they see as minor cases, because they might want or need a favor in the future on some case of greater political import.  This is not done out of some moral failing on their part; it is done out of simple, brutal necessity.

When an accused makes his (or her) statement before a judge, announcing that he is pleading guilty to a particular charge, as part of a plea bargain, he is asked by the judge if he has been threatened or otherwise coerced into making this plea.  Of course, if he answers anything other than “No,” he will not have his plea bargain available any more, and he can rest assured that the Prosecution will be livid, and will pursue his ruin with even greater fervor than they might have otherwise.  Yet to pose the question at all is a sick joke, for the true answer is always and inescapably “Yes.”  A defendant who accepts a plea bargain always does so under threat–and it is a threat of force, since it entails being taken to prison in shackles, by armed men and women, and being held there against his will a long period of time.  It is a rare situation indeed in which a person would plead guilty without being under such a threat.  The accused knows that truly fair trials are very few and far between, especially for those who do not have a great deal of money, and for those in ethnic minorities.  He almost always–90% of the time, anyway–takes the seeming lesser of the two evils on offer.

If our society does not have the resources to give a full and fair trial to every person who is accused of a crime, then rather than institute a biased, extortionist, abusive system of plea bargains, we should simply not opt to arrest and prosecute so many people.  There are real crimes to prosecute; we should apply appropriate resources to those crimes, and this includes providing for the actual fair trials of the defendants.  We should never bully or railroad any American citizen into a prison sentence under threat of a worse one.


I will be writing more about this subject, and other aspects of the criminal justice system, in the future, between posts about my fiction.  I encourage you to respond with comments, and share your views and experiences, whether you agree or disagree with me.  I, in turn, will do my best to engage in honest conversation with you.