If you have ever covered court cases, there is a pattern to our justice system. If you are brown or black, chances are your access to lawyers, let alone good lawyers will be limited. If you are white, your access to the same will be there. This is a generalization of course. There are defendants who are white, poor and represented by the public defender. There are also wealthy defendants who are either black or brown, who are represented by all-star teams. OJ comes to mind, for example. When he had an all-star team, more than a few believe he walked. Once he did not, we went to prison.
This has led to a few jokes. How well you are treated by the system depends on how much money you have in your bank account. While there is some truth to that, the inequalities in the system are systemic, deep, and have a long history. So if you are surprised by the Jeffrey Epstein saga, you truly should not.
Why do we have such an unequal justice system? After all, shouldn’t lady justice be impartial? The fact is that our justice system has had issues from the very beginning. It is neither impartial or purely meant to search for the truth. Part of it is that this system is driven by humans, and we all have biases. They will come up in the administration of Justice.
The problems are systemic and structural. Consider this. The American legal system started by questioning the humanity of both slaves and indentured servants. However, indentures had their humanity restored the moment they got their papers. Slaves were not considered human ever, which is a principle of chattel slavery. They were not allowed to testify. If charged with a crime, the defense was not allowed. If they were raped, their master was paid for damaging property. If a slave died from punishment, the owner was only guilty of destroying his property. And yes, it was his property since women were not allowed to own any property, or represent themselves in court.
After the civil war, former slaves were recognized as a human in the Constitution. However, they were still not allowed to testify in court on their own defense. Indigenous people were not recognized as people until 1924, and like blacks, were not allowed to testify in court. People of Mexican descent were caught somewhere in the middle but were also treated as less than human in the legal system
These patterns structurally prevented a few things. Blacks, Hispanics, and first Americans were prevented from accumulating wealth. The mechanisms were different, but the result was the same. People without much wealth, who are forced to live in substandard housing, in segregated neighborhoods and schools have a harder time getting the money needed to mount a defense.
When covering court cases, we have seen this often. The poor are condemned to get a public defender. The system is meant to keep these lawyers overworked and underpaid. And in spite of that, some of them are extraordinary lawyers, who care about their clients and mounting a good defense. However, when a case involves somebody of means, we see all-star teams who are extremely good and usually manage to get their clients either lesser penalties or no- convictions. The size of your bank account does influence what happens with the legal system.
So does the color of your skin. And while the percentages are narrowing, we still have discrepancies. This is according to a recent Pew report:
The racial and ethnic makeup of U.S. prisons continues to look substantially different from the demographics of the country as a whole. In 2017, blacks represented 12% of the U.S. adult population but 33% of the sentenced prison population. Whites accounted for 64% of adults but 30% of prisoners. And while Hispanics represented 16% of the adult population, they accounted for 23% of inmates.
Another way of considering racial and ethnic differences in the nation’s prison population is by looking at the imprisonment rate, which tallies the number of prisoners per 100,000 people. In 2017, there were 1,549 black prisoners for every 100,000 black adults — nearly six times the imprisonment rate for whites (272 per 100,000) and nearly double the rate for Hispanics (823 per 100,000).
For all three of these groups, imprisonment rates have declined substantially since 2007. The rate has declined 31% among blacks, 14% among whites and 25% among Hispanics. Experts have offered a range of explanations for the pronounced drop in the black imprisonment rate.
So going back to Epstein and the sweetheart deal he got. Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta offered a slew of excuses as to why he did not prosecute this man. He had the evidence, and 2008 is not precisely two centuries ago. There were successful prosecutions of human trafficking cases. However, this case may have involved not just Epstein, but a lot of very influential people on both sides of the aisle. However, President Donald Trump wants Acosta as his secretary for many reasons. Not just the fact that he may have avoided getting snared in the Epstein human trafficking saga over a decade ago.
As the Atlantic has written, there is more to why Acosta is the present secretary of labor:
Acosta has played a central role in that deregulation, helping ensure that the fruits of the longest expansion on record keep on benefiting businesses more so than workers. The Department of Labor is moving forward on a proposal to scale back an Obama-era expansion of overtime pay, stripping time-and-a-half compensation from millions of lower-income workers. It delayed a rule requiring that financial advisers commit to act in the best interests of their clients. It has also relaxed regulations designed to ensure that tipped workers are fully compensated and rolled back workplace-safety reporting rules.
Business lobbyists have been thrilled, labor unions and workers’ advocates less so, though many feared that the Department of Labor would have been even more aggressive in its regulatory agenda than it has been. Indeed, Acosta has come under pressure within the Trump administration for not being swift or forceful enough — with Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s acting chief of staff and all-purpose, high-level handyman, stepping in to move things along.
Even so, a government less interested in workplace injuries, less devoted to ensuring that tipped workers get paid fairly or that low-income wage workers get overtime: That is the legacy of Trump’s Department of Labor. An economy balanced more toward the rich and powerful and less toward lower-income workers: That is Trump’s legacy as an economic steward. With Epstein now facing the prospect of life in prison, who knows what Acosta’s legacy will be.
His present role, like when he was the United States District Attorney in Florida, is to protect the very wealthy. That is what he has done. And in the process, he is destroying any trust in the impartiality of the legal system. He is also ensuring that companies continue to make a lot of money and that the very rich have access to the best lawyers money can buy.
The Who’s who of those who were involved with Epstein is a good reason for the secrecy of the agreement, and the refusal to bring this to trial. Imagine if you will put a then former president of the United States on the stand. Or for that matter a rich businessman. Both Bill Clinton and Donald Trump were in Epstein’s orbit. So were a long list of very well connected people. We have seen a lot of allegations that if proven, could bring very influential men, and they were mostly men, into the legal system. So it does not take too much to imagine why the case was torpedoed.
How long will Trump protect Acosta? As long as the headlines do not get out of control. Once they do, he will likely go, like previous cabinet members who generated a slew of negative headlines. In the process, he exposed the legal system for what we knew it already was. And that is not a good thing. The Southern District of New York will help in restoring some faith in the system. But I do expect Epstein to mount a fierce defense with the best lawyers he can afford, as is his right. But none should be surprised at this. Those who are, obviously have not paid attention.
Small update needed. Secretary Acosta resigned a day after this story was publsihed.