Thursday, February 25, 2016

Two Degrees of Emancipation Between You and a Jail Cell



Emancipation: the fact or process of being set free from legal, social, or political restrictions; liberation:
You, and every citizen in the “freest nation on earth” are two steps away from a jail cell.
No, I’m not engaging in hyperbole, you have two degrees of emancipation from the penal justice system. It’s true. It is an indisputable fact, and I can prove it.
You see, somehow we have gotten to the point that every….single….facet of American’s lives is regulated by one level of government, or more. Not only that, but transgressing any of their regulations can land you in cuffs.
You cannot even use a toilet in this country, without the toilet, the pipes, the water, the plumber, the floor it’s set on, the walls beside it, the roof over it, being regulated.
And God forbid you decide to go outside of an approved receptacle and get caught, you could end up on the sex offenders list, for life!
So, how does that equate to two degrees of emancipation? After all, they can’t throw you in jail for having an illegal toilet, or can they? This is where it gets interesting.
It has always been true, for most of my life that all facets of life were connected, however loosely, to the government’s approval of what I do.
So, what do I mean about being two steps away from a jail cell? Let me share a story. I was in a little town in Oklahoma about 10 pm a few years back. When I came into town, I hit their speed trap and got dinged for under 10 over.
So, I wrote a check and I put it in the mail, via their instructions on the back of the citation. And, I thought, reasonably, that it was over and forgot about it.
Fast forward eight months, Edmond Oklahoma at a stoplight. There was a bit of gravel on the street and as I stopped, my tires scratched, just the teeniest bit, causing my tire to roll just a bit into the crosswalk. Since I saw a cop catty corner from me, I checked my mirror and rolled back just a bit, thinking nothing.
A few seconds later, the same cop has circled back and pulled me over because he saw me roll over the stop line, and he’s only going to give me a warning. Takes my license. Five minutes later, he’s unsnapping his holster and asking me to put my hands on the car.
One speeding ticket on a clean record, Plus, One missed court date that I received no notice from the little town about, Plus, No criminal record, equals a trip to the city jail and additional fines totaling $850, including an impound of my car, although I was gone from it for less than an hour total.
So, what made it happen? A little bit of magic called “Contempt of court”.
An almost knee jerk reaction to my not knowing I was supposed to be there, and a “suspended license”, also automatic, also without notification. Had I not been able to pay my fines, and my warrant fee, they could have kept me. By the time I was extradited to the small town to see their judge it could have been days.
And this can happen for ANYTHING, literally. Parking tickets, dog tickets, an unpaid home inspection violation fine, a delayed payment for a fine for leaving your trashcan at the curb, the list goes on.
So, you say, these are nuisances, don’t engage in antisocial behavior and it won’t be a problem. Right?
Unless you live in Oklahoma and decide to:
·       DO YOUR OWN HAIR WITHOUT A LICENSE
·       ALLOW THREE OR MORE DOGS TO CONGREGATE ON PRIVATE PROPERTY WITHOUT WRITTEN PERMISSION FROM THE MAYOR
·       HAVE ORAL SEX, EVEN IF MARRIED
·       TAKE A BITE OUT OF ANOTHER PERSON’S HAMBURGER
·       SPIT ON A SIDEWALK
·       WEAR BOOTS TO BED
·       HAVE SEX BEFORE MARRIED
·       CARRY A FISH IN A FISHBOWL ON A PUBLIC BUS
·       DON’T PAY PROPERTY TAXES ANNUALLY ON YOUR HOUSEHOLD FURNISHINGS
·       MAKE UGLY FACES AT PEOPLE
·       OR FORGET TO TIE UP YOUR CAR WHILE VISITING A PUBLIC BUILDING.
All of these are actual laws in the state of Oklahoma, which you can be directly jailed for, or fined, then jailed if you miss court.
The United States of America has the largest percentage of citizens behind bars of any nation on earth. Although we have less than 5% of the world’s population, we have 25% of the world’s prisoners.
Not only that but it has become an industry!
Prisons can be privately owned, and in some states, they can have contracts with the department of corrections that mandate a specific number of filled beds, or huge fines to be paid by the state for not finding enough prisoners to keep the beds filled.
Prisoners are often hired out for labor and paid a small fraction of the wages they should receive, far below minimum wage, meanwhile, their prison overlords reap the profits. Oh, boo hoo, you say? Too bad, don’t break the law?
Well, in case the list above is not enough to make you question if they all belong there, this might. Of all the convicted felons in prison in the US, over 95% of them never went to trial.
That’s right! over 9 out of 10 convicted felons were convicted on a plea bargain and never stood in front of a jury. Many times it was all determined by one man or woman, not even a judge.
Why does this matter?
It matters because our legal system is based on the age old principle of the presumption of innocence. The burden of proof lies with the state. It’s hard to prove in a court of law, that a person has committed a crime, beyond a reasonable doubt.
So, prosecutors, knowing this, quote the stats of how many convictions they have earned, versus exonerations. They scare prisoners by telling them, they are virtually assured to be convicted and sent to prison for the maximum sentence.
But, only those cases that are assured “slam dunks” are ever allowed to go to trial. They will offer immunity, if they believe the prisoner is innocent, or not a danger, they will offer a reduced sentence if they think they can get it.
So prisoners are agreeing to plead guilty based on a small number of easy to win cases!
When placed in front of a jury, the accused has the chance to tell their own story. The jury has a chance to determine if the police, the prosecutor and the system have done their job. There is a great deal of accountability in it.
By shortcutting this process in the vast majority of our criminal cases, we allow the “justice system” to essentially run unchecked. Juries are not just for determining guilt or innocence, they force the system to operate by the rules.
So, that’s why it matters that you are two steps away from a jail cell at nearly every moment of every day.
And, actually, it is worse than that. In most states, the arresting officer has, as their sole discretion, the determination of what constitutes “resisting arrest”. You can literally be charged with this crime for ANY reason they determine worthwhile.
So, what can we do about it? There’s a lot, actually. We can volunteer for jury duty. We can educate our fellow citizens to the problem. We can help change laws. We can wake people up.
Want to learn something cool? Research a concept called jury nullification!
Juries can vote not to convict when they believe a law is unjust, which in turn sets legal precedence and can work to fight unjust laws. So, there is a lot of good that comes out of the jury system that we are currently missing in our society.

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