“Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall:
Some run from brakes of ice, and answer none:
And some condemned for a fault alone.”
(Measure For Measure, act 2, sc. 1)
Comments. The US incarcerates more of its citizens than any nation on earth, both in absolute numbers and proportionally. But the law is flexible when the nation’s most powerful actors are caught breaking the law. With few exceptions, they are gifted not merely with leniency, but full-scale immunity from criminal punishment. In fact the most egregious crimes of the last decade have been fully shielded from prosecution when committed by those with the greatest political and economic power. For example, torture, warrantless spying on Americans’ communications, aggressive wars launched on false pretenses, and the massive, systemic financial fraud in the banking and credit industry that triggered the 2008 financial crisis.
As an example, federal investigators found that one of the world’s largest banks, HSBC, spent years committing serious crimes, involving money laundering for terrorists; “facilitating money laundering by Mexican drug cartels”; and “moving tainted money for Saudi banks tied to terrorist groups”. Those investigations uncovered substantial evidence “that senior bank officials were complicit in the illegal activity.” For these crimes ordinary and powerless people are prosecuted and imprisoned with the greatest harshness possible.
But this week the US Justice Department announced that HSBC would not be criminally prosecuted, for the reason that they are too important, too instrumental to subject them to such disruptions. In stead they fined the bank for the equivalent of 4 weeks earnings.
By coincidence, on the very same day that the DOJ announced that HSBC would not be indicted for its multiple money-laundering felonies, the New York Times published a story featuring the harrowing saga of an African-American single mother of three who was sentenced to life imprisonment at the age of 27 for a minor drug offense:
“Stephanie George and Judge Roger Vinson had quite different opinions about the lockbox seized by the police from her home in Pensacola. She insisted she had no idea that a former boyfriend had hidden it in her attic. Judge Vinson considered the lockbox, containing a half-kilogram of cocaine, to be evidence of her guilt.
Said the judge, “Even though you have been involved in drugs and drug dealing,’ Judge Vinson told Ms. George, ‘your role has basically been as a girlfriend and bag holder and money holder but not actively involved in the drug dealing, so certainly in my judgment it does not warrant a life sentence.
Yet the judge had no other option based on the 3 strike rule. As her stunned family watched, Ms. George, then 27, who had never been accused of violence, was led from the courtroom to serve a sentence of life without parole.
Even The New York Times remarks that this is commonplace for the poor and for minorities in the US justice system. Contrast the deeply oppressive, merciless punishment system with the full-scale immunity bestowed on HSBC – along with virtually every powerful and rich lawbreaking faction in America over the last decade. Welcome to the two-tiered US justice system. How this glaringly disparate, and explicitly status-based treatment under the criminal law does not produce serious social unrest is beyond understanding.
Tips for Use. Comment on the incredible inequalities in the application of justice.
In the Play. Escalus comments on the death sentence meted by Angelo on Claudius, condemned for having seduced a girl. See also in-the-play comments to ‘Hope as the refuge of the distressed.