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A reader of my recent article on private prisons recommended that I watch the documentary “Kids For Cash” on Netflix.  One of the examples I cited was of the Pennsylvania judges, Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan, who were both implicated in accepting money in exchange for keeping Robert Mericle’s private prisons fully stocked with juvenile offenders.  The reader made the recommendation after reading this specific paragraph below:

So you should not be surprised at all to find out that private prisons are one of the leading lobbyists for continuing and expanding the war on drugs. They are not the only ones profiting from this – judges, police officers, lawyers… they and plenty of others all have huge incentives to keep locking people up, no matter the “offense”. A Pennsylvania judge was caught and sentenced to 28 years for taking bribes from for-profit juvenile detention centers to keep them full, even on petty offenses. This is only one example of someone who was actually caught and sentenced, and I find it hard to believe that more authority figures aren’t doing this exact same thing and getting away with it. As they say… “There is never one cockroach”.

This scandal was one of the most egregious abuses of the authorities in regards to imprisoning innocents. The two judges at the heart of the scandal, who made themselves available to the filmmakers in interviews on several occasions, only seemed to show remorse for accepting funds in connection with the private prisons.  The two showed little if any remorse for the kids they imprisoned, and seemed to feel as if they were doing the right thing.  This is the much more worrisome conclusion to be drawn from the film – that there are many authority figures who are meting out justice are putting people through the criminal justice system for minor infractions, with little to no concern on the overall impact on their lives. 

Kids For Cash is just the tip of the iceberg in regards to imprisoning innocents.  As I pointed out in the above quote, the war on drugs is the primary culprit in keeping our prisons stocked with nonviolent offenders.  The problem transcends race, and the victims depicted in the film were all white.  However, the poor and underprivileged, many of whom are black, are more often than not the ones who are victimized by an abusive criminal justice system.  As I pointed out in my article about policing, police fatalities are often falsely cited in the case for police reform.  To really change police behavior, our country should be focused on the disparities in enforcement of the war on drugs, which unfairly victimizes blacks relative to other ethnicities. 

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The biggest takeaway I have from the film?  If you ever have to deal with the police, having a lawyer present during any questioning is essential.  All of the cited victims in the film waived their right to counsel prior to their trial.  If the cops try to tell you that you don’t need a lawyer, but they are treating you as a potential suspect in a crime, it is more than fair to assume they could victimize you if you allow them to.  Pay up for a lawyer if you can afford it – it is a small price to pay to help prevent your life from being ruined.  If you have to, get a public defender – while it isn’t ideal, it is better than nothing.  You are only protecting yourself by demanding representation; you do not want to become a victim of the system.

Again, there is never one cockroach.  Do not presume to think there aren’t many more authority figures, including cops, judges, and bail bondsman, who can and will victimize you to justify their own existence.   This might happen in a much smaller form, such as a ticket, fine, or misdemeanor charge, but it can happen to anyone.  Do your best to avoid having it happen to you.

The film states that the US incarcerates 5 times as many children as every other nation, and that we spend 8 times as much annually per child to incarcerate than we do to educate.  Give authorities less incentive to put people through the criminal justice system.  One of the best ways to do this is ending the war on drugs and changing the way punishment for minor infractions is enforced.  It is also important to prevent minorities from being unfairly victimized by the system, and be sure police are enforcing based on intent and justice, not race.

I recommend you check out the movie.  The movie’s website lists many ways to view it, and it is currently available on Netflix.  One of the highlights of the film for me was when Ciavarella was confronted after his verdict by the mother of one of his victims, clearly still in denial as to his impact on the lives of those he sentenced.  It won’t make you feel any better about the state of affairs, but at least you might feel as though the responsible parties are finally being held accountable for ruining the lives of people for the most trivial of infractions.

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