Americans are sentenced to prison at a higher rate than anyone else in the world. Despite the pretensions of our exalted trial-by-jury “justice” system, a nauseating number of those convicted are actually innocent, as evidenced by the thousands who have been exonerated by DNA evidence in the short time and small proportion of cases in which DNA evidence is available. An even greater number of people serving criminal sentences are of questionable blameworthiness when considering the nature of the so-called crime, the accused’s mental health or intellectual ability, or factors such as socioeconomic duress and institutional racism.
Even in cases in which culpability is clear, we sentence individuals to years, decades, lifetimes of confinement for their behavior on one day. We commit them to subhuman conditions under which they are further deprived of the opportunities they probably lacked in the life leading up to that one day. And if they are fortunate enough ever to be released, they will be rejected for jobs, housing, public benefits, student loans, and will never be permitted to have a say in the so-called democracy of which they are supposedly citizens.
Meanwhile, our presidents, legislators, judges, police officers, military commanders, corporate executives, religious leaders, and husbands go largely unpunished, and even remain in positions of great power, despite perpetrating widespread, day-after-day atrocities of war, coups, arms deals, shootings, toxic pollution, exploitation, and abuse.
This dichotomy does not imply we should sentence even more people to prison, though some of this second group are probably deserving. Rather, it raises a disturbing question about our criminal and political systems and, more fundamentally, our culture: Why do we vilify the powerless who act out but tolerate and even celebrate the powerful who abuse their positions? This privilege of power, too, is handed down by history — and we refuse to face it.