If we as Americans were asked, "What is the criminal justice system?" most would say it is the system of government that protects us against the gravest of threats to our society. However, the criminal justice system does not protect us against the gravest threats to life, limb, or possessions. Its definitions of crime are not simply a reflection of the objective dangers that threaten us. The workplace, the medical profession, the air we breathe, corporate misbehavior, tax cheating, fraud, consumer deception, embezzlement, and the poverty we refuse to rectify lead to far more human suffering, result in far more death and disability, and take far more dollars from our pockets than the murders, aggravated assaults, and thefts reported annually by the FBI. The government could treat these behaviors as more serious criminal offenses. This suffering could be prevented, but yet the government does little or nothing at all. Why?
The United States has an enormous drug abuse and addiction problem. There is considerable evidence, however, that our attempts to cure it are worse than the disease itself. Most people associate drugs with crime because addicts steal, but addicts steal because the cost of drugs is high. The high cost is related to the drugs being illegal because everyone in the distribution chain needs to profit enough to compensate for the risk of being caught and locked up. Much of the violence surrounding the drug trade is at the hands of gangs and organized crime that make a profit on the illegal market. Their disputes are not resolved through free markets or the legal system. In response, the government has engaged in a "Drug War" that has cost billions OF dollars, incarcerated millions of people, and is responsible for little change in drug usage. Moreover, the criminalization of drugs undercuts public health efforts to deal with the real problem: drug addiction.
A government truly intent on protecting us would strengthen and enforce work safety regulations, police the medical profession, require that clean-air standards be met diligently, be more attentive to the massive chemical exposure faced by the public, and devote sufficient resources to the poor to alleviate the major disabilities of poverty and drug abuse, but it does not. Instead, we hear a lot of "can't" about law and order, and a lot of ranting about crime in the streets. The criminalization of drugs creates even more criminals/crime by labeling addicts "felons," taking away their rights, and imprisoning them, instead of treating or curing these same people. A good example is Tennessee's newest legislation on pregnant mothers found with drugs in their system. You can read more about this wrongheaded law here.
It is as if our leaders are not only refusing to protect us, but also trying to cover up this refusal by diverting our attention to crime, as if street crime were the only real threat. You can even notice it in the way media portrays crime. Look at the difference in how it portrays a local mugger/murderer compared to a mining disaster or a tragic factory explosion when safe guards were ignored or compromised. Both caused death through negligence – the former only one, the latter many. Through the media, one is portrayed as a murder while the other is portrayed as a tragic accident or disaster.
The justice system has become a carnival mirror of sorts, presenting a distorted view of what threatens us most, while avoiding or diverting attention from some of society's biggest threats, so that in the end, when we look in our prisons to see who we perceive to be the greatest threat, virtually all we see are poor people. All the while, most of the well-to-do people who endanger us have been discreetly weeded out of the system. At every stage of the criminal justice system, the poor criminal is greatly disadvantaged compared to her rich counterpart. And this disparity in treatment occurs after most of the dangerous acts of the well-to-do have already been excluded from the definition of crime itself. The bias against the poor within the criminal justice system is all the more striking when we recognize that the door to that system is shaped in a way that excludes in advance the most dangerous acts of the well-to-do.
It is time to look more closely at the way our criminal justice system actually works.