Smoke was almost visible coming out of my friend’s ears, she was so angry. News just broke that the two Georgetown freshmen, arrested last week for cooking up some very strong drugs in their Harbin Hall dorm room, were released into the custody of their parents who immediately took them home to Andover, Massachussets to await trial. Their lawyers said that these were “terrific kids” from “good families” who should not be kept in “criminal hell” aka D.C. Jail.
“They’re going to be a lot better tonight when they get a good meal with their folks,” said one of the lawyers to a Washington Post reporter.
My friend’s anger echoed many of the outraged comments offered in the online versions of this story in the Washington Post and the Washington City Paper. On its face, the case is a glaring example of the unequal distribution of justice in our city, appearing to be a prime example of racism and classism at work in the justice system. These two accused felons are young white men from affluent families attending a prestigious university.
The idea that the judge would simply remand them to their parents, letting them go back to Massachusetts until their trials, strikes many observers as a kind of leniency that is almost never available to young Black men accused of crimes, whether misdemeanors or felonies. The comments of the lawyers certainly seem utterly obtuse, though we have to recognize that defense lawyers are paid to be advocates for their clients.
I certainly do not have any more knowledge of the case than the limited information available through news outlets and blogs. As a lawyer, myself, I absolutely believe that the accused must be treated as innocent until proven guilty. So, in terms of the specific question of the guilt or innocence of the men in this case, we must allow the justice system to take its course.
The larger social issue, however, is painfully clear. Justice is neither blind nor equal when it comes to the ability of defendants to secure top notch legal talent. Sure, there are great public defenders and pro bono lawyers, but impoverished defendants have to depend on the luck of the assignment system to snag them while facing the risk of drawing far less talented and more overburdened legal counsel. Meanwhile, the accused children of wealth and privilege can usually count on counsel from the trusted family lawyer at least, if not the biggest name money can buy.
Access to high quality legal services is a principle of equal justice that has fallen by the wayside in recent history in the United States. Our preoccupation with terrorism, healthcare reform, school reform, the Redskins, the recession, Lindsay Lohan, the Tea Party or the next party has pushed the idea of equal justice for all to some far back-burner. We’ve allowed the whole idea of legal services for the poor and disenfranchised in our nation to become a diminished shadow of a once-robust system of legal aid.
Since September 11, 2001, as a nation we’ve been entirely too willing to go along with the erosion of notions of justice for the accused when it comes to potential terrorists, and it’s just a short walk from not caring about what goes on in Gitmo to not really caring about what goes on at the D.C. Jail. Unless, of course, some “terrific kids” wind up there. Then, of course, justice must be served!
Would justice be better served had these two young men remained in jail? Not at all. I’m not among those who believe that everyone should be treated as badly as the worst treatment our unequal system of justice has to offer. Rather, I’m in favor of using the moment to examine the ever-present opportunity for hypocrisy in claiming that the legal system is “blind” to race or class or other personal characteristics. The evidence is clear that prosecutors and defense lawyers can and do collaborate all the time well in fixing the mess of some lives, while leaving others to languish.
The disproportionate impact of race and wealth on the administration of justice in a nation supposedly committed to the ideal of “Equal Justice Under Law” is an American shame.
Read: Bill Quigley, Fourteen Examples of Racism in the Criminal Justice System