Justice inequality: Matt Taibbi’s The Divide, Sarah Stillman’s Get Out of Jail, Inc.


I just read a one-two punch about the unequal dispensation of justice in the U.S. We’ve been hearing a lot about income inequality lately. Justice inequality is income inequality’s bullying little brother who does much of the dirty work that keeps income inequality thriving.

Matt Taibbi’s new book is called The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap. I’d never read Taibbi before, although I’d always heard great things. Still, I wasn’t looking forward to a bitter polemic about how our justice system gives carte blanche to the haves and while putting the screws to the have-nots. But Taibbi’s book doesn’t read like a screed. He tells his stories and for the most part lets them speak for themselves.

Each chapter pairs tales of brazen corporate criminals on one side and some poor down-on-his-luck schnook on the other side. Time after time, the corporate criminals are not charged for their crimes, which harm countless lives and livelihoods by, for instance, bankrupting cities and government pension funds. They get off with fines, which are paid by their parent corporations, with no individual crooks ever held accountable, even when the evidence has them dead to rights. Meanwhile, the schnooks bear the full brunt of the criminal justice system for their trivial offenses, like driving without a license, or even imaginary offenses, like being stopped and frisked for no reason and then being charged for blocking pedestrian traffic on an empty New York sidewalk at 1am.  

What Taibbi gets so right is how we all have come to accept and internalize the sliding scale of equal justice that is based on economic caste. Yeah, we might want to see wealthy crooks get what’s coming to them, but we understand that they have the money to hire lawyers and make any prosecution a costly roll of the dice that might come up snake eyes. Meanwhile, we accept what happens to the poor because, well, we Americans don’t like losers, especially when we know we could become losers ourselves in a heartbeat. So, yeah, we think, it sucks, but better them than us.

Then just as I finish the Taibbi book, the latest New Yorker arrives with Sarah Stillman’s article Get Out of Jail, Inc., (sub req) about the private probation industry. These for-profit companies strike deals with local and state courts who have seen their budgets slashed by state governments. The deal is, they manage the probation of minor offenders, thus keeping the government from having to spend the money to house them in jail. Even better, they shift the cost of administering probation from the courts to the penny-ante offenders themselves. Not only does it make money for the courts and these for-profit businesses, it keeps these minor offenders caught in a Kafka-esque nightmare where they are under the constant threat of incarceration if they don’t cough up cash to pay constantly compounding fees and penalties.

In both Taibbi’s book and Stillman’s article it’s clear that these effects may be driven less by ideology and more by systemic lethargy. It’s hard and often fail-prone to prosecute the rich; it’s easy to prosecute the poor. So justice inequality and income inequality join in a self-reinforcing cycle.

Fun times.