On the U.S. Justice System

Length: 744 words

The United States of America has historically been a shit place for Justice. A bloody mess of Manifest Destiny and caste capitalism. Our outdated legal system has failed time and again to match the pace of society and technology, and current events have shown how skewed justice is for our all of our citizens.

The Problems:

We, as a society, have allowed profit prisons to exist, an industry that literally thrives off the existence of criminals. This isn’t like non-governmental organizations established to help the homeless or assist our wounded veterans; once their services are no longer needed, grants are no longer given. Our prisons are increasingly operating as for-profit businesses, and their interest is in maintaining a criminal population. If we have anything to learn from growth-focused capitalism, this is a dystopian reality.

Crime is a business but Justice is not.

Not only this, but the percentages reveal a Justice system that has disproportionally targeted minorities, and even more specifically, black males. Our country is still divided by racial prejudices, physically and emotionally. (For more on this subject, read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow). Then the frightening streak of police officers shooting unarmed African American men and children.

Our Constitution grants us the right to life.

The Situation:

The founders of our legal system crafted a system designed for freedom yet mired in discrimination, granting rights to only a slim portion of the population. This established a mindset of power that has existed and perpetuated to this day. It took us centuries to extend rights to every citizen as our Bill of Rights so famously proclaims.

The branches of government were meant to keep each other in check, but what happens when all three have shown utter ineptitude to progress? Technology is rapidly scaling society’s pace of change. How is our Justice system defined centuries ago keeping up?

Current law gives space for discretion such that hard-and-fast rules do not result in permanent convictions of people who honestly meant no harm to society. But what happens when discretion is misused? We need to reconstruct the boundaries that guide our judges of discretion. When a government employee holds the power to affect a citizen’s life with their discretion, then when the judgement is wrong, there should be repercussions that remove or revoke that officer’s power.

This stems from the economics of law. In a perfect world, we would only catch those who were truly guilty of their crimes. But with this being impossible, we construct a legal system that maybe misses some of the guilty but avoids falsely imprisoning people. Hence the idea: innocent until proven guilty.

However, our new world of transparency has revealed a Justice system that is frequently guilty until proven innocent. And in the most heinous of perversions, this maxim is resulting in some sworn protectors shooting those under their watch, their care. The numbers are in: just one falsely shot person is worse than letting a criminal getting away.

Because then to whom do the innocent turn? Where can trust exist?

The Future:

The spirit of our laws pursue the notions of freedom, of innocence before guilt, yet the numbers are undeniably showing a disconnect between some of our judges and their accused. Any government official whose discretion affects another citizen’s life is a judge. And when they fail, they’ve failed another life. Do we allow our greatest wielders of Justice to keep making mistakes?

No one is perfect, including government officials, but what we fear most is discretion beyond its boundaries. What we fear are arbiters of personal ethics. The system is fundamentally flawed if its agents act outside of its structure; and believe always that the Justice system of the United States is for EVERY citizen.

Crafting a new Justice system for our nation is beyond this article (and certainly the breadth of my current knowledge), but there are a few concepts I’d like to see put forward on a federal level:

  • Rehabilitation for non-violent crimes; no more imprisonment.
  • End “War on Drugs” convictions; the slew of legislation from the Nixon Administration onward has spiraled into the devastating rates of incarceration that have trampled homes, neighborhoods, and communities. Because Prohibition was super successful…
  • Innocence over guilt; ramifications for government officials that falsely condemn another citizen (international laws should apply to non-citizens).

This could go on and on, but thanks for reading this far. Please chime in with thoughts or share or whatever the hell you want.

Bernie Sanders in NYC

The Bernie Sanders rally in NYC titled “Where We Go From Here” was inspiring and daunting. Located a block from Time Square with the dazzling lights and trundling costumes of Elmos and Batmans, the humble Senator drew a massive crowd. People waited in a line that stretched up and down streets while police officers with bulletproof vests and rifles stood watch. Lots of Bernie 2016 shirts, many a pin tacked on a collar. There was anxiety in the air, too, an aimlessness of their passion. What was Sanders going to do with the numbers overwhelmingly in Clinton’s favor? How could anyone vote for that woman? Who would could possibly be voted for if not Sanders?

Color me shocked. This false dichotomy is paralyzing lots of voters. I digress (but hold that thought).

So it was interesting to hear “Where We Go From Here.”

Sanders spoke with passion, he connected deeply and personally with the issues of his supporters. They jumped at every possible chance to clap and roar his name. Some people were bowing, screaming they loved him. I kid you not. I kept thinking, This is where he tells everyone the next step. Not the idealistic bytes of his campaign, but of how his supporters can continue to keep their politics alive, even with their runner diminishing from the race (cue agist joke about Sanders running).

But there wasn’t this moment where Sanders settled the crowd and said, “But let’s be real, where we go from here will not include me as your Democratic Party presidential nominee.” Instead, he mentioned gathering the support of his campaign behind other Democratic Senators running in their states and efforts to establish the wishes of his supporters on the Democratic platform come November.

His caution is warranted perhaps only by the mathematical life still breathing throughout his nomination campaign. But his subtlety may be lost on many of his impassioned followers. Truthfully, there is still much to be desired in Sanders’ politics and his policies, notwithstanding his rhetoric and integrity.

But following Bernie is not what you think it means. It’s not about him and never was. It’s about political activation, of awareness and where to lend a voice. It’s about thinking of this nation’s direction. It’s about being a participant rather than a viewer.

Because this is where we go from here: in the greatest age of communication, voters in the United States must know more about the policies of our government. We must be informed and we must share. We must learn and we must care. We must be open-minded and compassionate.

The vow of Sanders’ campaign has the feeling of a grassroots movement, but it always depends on which lawn you stand. We feel most keenly when there is a side against us, and these dichotomies stretch our nation too far apart. This country is full of intelligence, thoughtfulness, and optimism. So when you read about politics and government, think about all the ways you can contribute, whether discussing with friends and family, sharing articles, or voting.

You can watch the full speech here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hZKDq3MbK9I

I’m a registered Independent and voted Sanders for the Democratic Party Presidential Nominee.

Homelessness

I see two major cities every day of my workweek: Oakland and San Francisco.

I pass through their downtowns.

I see lots of homeless people.

Clustered in the dark doorways, around short brick retainers, leaning against fences, and sometimes just desperately prone against collapsed cardboard like a lost fight against a magnified gravity. Maybe behind a shopping cart. Maybe under a tattered blanket.

I saw a homeless man step onto an uphill BART escalator and within the ten second ride to the top, had urinated all over the side panels by the time he got to the top. It splashed all over the side walls, then dripped between the brush side stuff that I have no idea the purpose for, then disappeared amidst the steely jaws of the stairs. I was a good way down the escalator from him, and I wanted to say something like, “Hey, man, how’s it going? Y’know, your pee right there? That’s pretty disgusting, please don’t do that. You make our public transit station smell like you. Oh, and it’s pretty fucking disgusting.”

But I held my words because:

1. I was not in a position to argue.
2. I was definitely not in a position to argue.

My immediate fear was that he would not only give no shits what I thought, but he would also flippantly divert his stream my way. And it’s not like I can stop this guy from doing the same thing tomorrow. Practically every establishment downtown has a sign reading: No Public Restrooms, Please Don’t Ask. Where else was he going to go? May as well use the escalator while it’s bringing him somewhere… I guess… <shudder>

And so this dude pisses on the escalator. Brutal. I don’t even want to know what he has to do to poop.

Anyway, right after he gets off the escalator, he’s walking in front of me, meets up with a drug dealer, and they slap hands (exchanging their appropriate items) and smoothly part ways. I wonder if the drug dealer knows where those hands have been. So much dealing.

Well, it just bugs me. You might have a grand time of it, too. First off, ride BART and have fun on there. Then, I dare you to walk through UN Plaza and not be depressed at the sight of homelessness there. Right on Market onto Grove, sharp right at the big fancy City Hall, walk fifty paces, can’t miss ’em.

I don’t know what the point of this post is. I don’t have any solutions. I don’t even know all the causes of homelessness. It just bugs me, and I want to know how to create solutions and understand their problems. That’s not going to happen by giving the same dude a dollar every day after work. Or telling the guy pissing on the escalator that there are other ways he can relieve his issues.

I want homeless people to not be homeless if they don’t want to be, and I want the homeless people who don’t give a rat’s ass about other people to either grow up or go form their own homeless colony on the moon or in underwater bubbles. But how to make this happen is beyond me right now and obviously beyond the city and state and nation and society. Gosh blam it. Shit.

*UPDATE
This article came out the day after I wrote this post: http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/S-F-takes-data-driven-approach-to-poop-5621384.php

I’m optimistic but don’t color me shocked me if it doesn’t work.

Which, I suppose means I’m not that optimistic.

The World’s A Lotta Crazy

“I don’t mind being the neighborhood crazy. I just wish people wouldn’t think I’m the only one.”

– Bathrobe-clad lady drinking something from a water bottle while walking down the street

I chuckled at the first sentence but paused at the second. I think it’s actually a bit of drunken profundity.

I had just left the library after working on some short stories. I spent the afternoon trying to capture the Heisenberg-esque mind of a crazy person, and here it was delivered to me.

Her quiet remark to herself forced me to think about how people view themselves. We’re always evaluating ourselves, whether we want to or not, and comparing to the others around. Assessment of others can be seen as an instinct. Gotta know if someone’s a friend or foe, that kind of thing.

Naturally, we take notice of the people around us. For the most part in modern society, I’d say people are less keyed into the survival bit (highly dependent on your occupation… obviously). Anything thereafter can be considered character judgement. What kind of person is this? They look like they’d hate socks stuffed with pinto beans. I bet in high school, they could never compare oranges to apples in the cafeteria.

We’ll all come to our own conclusions about what Bathrobe lady really meant. There’s a lot going on in her words, much of it sad, truthful, and sincere.

The angles from which we consider one another are plentiful, and people would probably benefit from (at least momentarily) considering the angles of those around them.

The Glazed Wall

So in my “About jey” page, I say that I don’t mind people texting while on the bus. And I don’t. But I do think it’s a hilarious new norm.

I’m a suburban kid. If I had grown up in the city, I’d have seen what riders would have done without phones and Kindles and headphones worth $5. It may have looked sorta like what I saw today, but I’ll never know.

Just about every single person’s face is glued to a phone screen. Almost literally (I wish though, because that’d be hilarious).

And if they aren’t looking at it, they’re listening to something through headphones that suck their minds out their eardrums. They just stare listlessly into space.

To be clear, even if they weren’t doing these things, I wouldn’t want to talk to any of them. That’s just not my jam, talking to strangers on a bus after work. So I understand the reasoning behind it. The dude sitting behind me just wants to relax and watch slasher films on his iPad, screams busting out his headphones, while the girl next to me shifts uncomfortably and continues cooing into the phone with whomever on some other bus (Oh, so her face was totally glued to the screen, HAH).

I get it. They have other things to do.

Me. I bet they’re making all kinda wayward judgements of me too. I’m sitting there, super awkward, because those chairs can never be comfortable, and I sometimes scribble in a notebook, or I’m struggling to stay awake and my face keeps zigzagging across my chest like I’m trying to draw a figure eight with a pen in my mouth. To each her own.

I do, however, enjoy the off-chance that someone wants to strike up a conversation with me. It’s a rare thing but enjoyable; perhaps because of its spontaneity and scarcity.

I wonder how consistent this aspect of nature is, though. I hardly think it’s a phenomenon of technology. I mean, if everyone were just sitting there, I wouldn’t try and talk to any of them. I like to daydream and that doesn’t require teamwork. There’s a lot of hubbub (here is where I cite evidence that you believe) that technology is killing people’s ability to actual communicate with one another.

Well, maybe for some people, but my mouth isn’t in a constant state of motion anyway, which leads me to believe people weren’t made to always talk to each other. They pick and choose. It just so happens that now they’re choosing to do more entertaining things because they can. I think that’s fair. No need to force it.

So, there’s my spiel on human disconnectedness. It is what it is. If you want it, you can try for it, but you may get shot down. Oddly, I think that happened even before people had phones.

Alms giving

So last night, I gave 8 dollars to a man on the train. Is that a lot or a little? Based on the ordering of my words, maybe it’s a lot. But based on the regular expenditures of my life, maybe it’s only a little. How do you judge it?

I had been out with friends at a bar, had a few drinks, watched a basketball game, bid farewell, and boarded a train back home. It wasn’t too late, just about 10:30pm, and the train was barely lined with folks. Just about anyone could grab a seat if they wanted one, though the seats are grimy enough to make that decision a difficult one at best.

I decided to stand. I wasn’t going to be on the train that long anyway, just about 15 minutes.

Seven minutes or so into the ride, a man goes by, asking for money. He approaches several young men with English accents. They’re pretty cheerful, and even seem a bit tipsy and they josh around with the man, before deciding that, between the three of them, they can spare a dollar. For some reason this bothers me.

The man graciously accepts the dollar and continues on. When he reaches my area, he doesn’t turn to me, instead turning to the couple across from me. They decline to provide money and he carries on down the aisles, left to right and back again. For some reason, I find myself wishing he’d asked me.

Not four minutes later, another man comes down the aisles, asking for money. He asks the same people. The same English men. Now, they seem less jovial and their collective dollar effort has been reduced to some excuses that they don’t carry any dollar bills on them.

This man now reaches my area and instead of turning to the couple, he turns to me. Even before he’s asking, I’m reaching for my wallet. I think I’d made my mind up well beforehand. There are several factors that affected me, though this is the first time I’ve confronted any of them through words.

1. I try to give money whenever possible. There are many things in play here. If the asker smells like cigarettes or alcohol, I’m much less likely to give at all. But for someone who is asking respectfully and earnestly, hey, sometimes a person just needs a hand.

2. I dislike when people, who clearly have money, refuse to offer anything. It irks me when people are listening to their iPhones but can’t spare a dollar.

3. I’d just spent about 7 dollars per beer at a bar. Couldn’t I spare some money?

So I gave him some money and he thanked me profusely and I was beginning to feel awkward about it when he decided the more thanks he gave, the less time he had for asking others.

There you have it. That’s the story, but I’ve been a little bothered by it ever since. I like to think that I was guided by principles to give that second man money but why didn’t I give the first man money? Both of them were nice and weren’t the disorderly and rowdy panhandlers you can see on public transportation.

Would it have been better to split the $8 between them? Should I have given more money? Once I’ve established the principle that I think it’s worthy to give them money, how do I know how much money to give? I wish I knew the answer because the result is me acting inconsistently.

As much as I like to think about this stuff, it gives me a headache. I think more so than if I had never given any money at all. It feels like after I hand them my money, I’ve given them some part of me, I’ve invested in them a little, and I’d like to know what happens. Are they truly earnest, or am I just the greatest dupe?

Well, I’ll keep thinking about this and if I ever figure out what to do about it, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, how does this relate to writing? People don’t always act the same, or as they idealize themselves. And when they don’t, I think they struggle with themselves. Identity or whatever. What-kind-of-person-am-I type inner dialogues.

How much do people adhere to principles? Do people still refer to how they act as guiding principles? Not something I’ve really talked about with lots of people. Anyway, as a writer, I believe this is an important concept to maintain. Characters can be inconsistent, but there has to be a reason, and I think people know when they’ve acted differently. They’ll reflect. And they’ll maybe change after that.