Justice cuts two ways for those caught in crime


Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

“If it bleeds, it leads” is an adage the local TV networks employ when setting the table for their nightly news menu.

As a longtime member of the print media, I seldom watch the nightly onslaught of mindless mayhem, but for whatever twisted reason I decided to sample the Metro Detroit fare the other evening. The carnage included two double homicides, a rape, a gruesome assault, and a grisly case of child molestations.

All within 12 minutes.

The two talking heads did their best to put on grim faces while reading their scripts, only to turn into Laurel and Hardy a minute later when it was time to turn to the weather map, where the country was experiencing floods, drought, tornadoes, and record-breaking heat all within the span of a day.

Crime, on the other hand, has long held a fascination with the American populace. Look no further than the frenzy over a star NFL player recently accused of domestic violence, a troubling matter caught on a home surveillance video.

Crime and the fear of crime, as a former president said, have eroded the basic quality of life for every American.

The criminal justice system can shoulder a great deal of the blame. The archaic machinery of justice in this country is remarkably resistant to change. Like every other bureaucratic institution, it is distant, impersonal, and at times horrifying. Its treadmill characteristics have been graphically illustrated in various federal crime commission reports indicating that half of the felonies committed are never reported to police. Of those that are, less than 25 percent are solved by arrests. Half of those arrest result in dismissal of the charges, and 90 percent of those are resolved by a guilty plea.

Even more disturbing are these cold, callous facts. The fraction of cases that go to trial represent less than 1 percent of all crimes committed. About 25 percent of those convicted are sent to prison; the rest are released on probation. Nearly everyone who does go to prison is eventually released. And finally, between half and two-thirds of those released are arrested and convicted again, making the circle complete.

Even more disturbing is how those with wealth are treated by the criminal justice system as opposed to those caught in the web of poverty. Painful evidence of that disparity is detailed in a book written by Patrick Keefe, the author of “Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty.”

The Sacklers are joined at the hip with Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, a prescription opiod that has caused a public health crisis claiming the lives of more than a half-million Americans.

Over the past 15 years, the Sacklers have been in the cross-hairs of state and federal prosecutors for their roles in “helping to precipitate the opiod crisis,” according to Keefe, whose guest essay in The New York Times on July 14 detailed just how the family has used its vast fortune to skirt punishment, employing “their money and influence to play our system like a harp.”

Yes, Keefe acknowledged, Purdue Pharma has paid a price for its misdeeds, forking over a $600 million fine several years ago to settle federal charges and $225 million last year to bring an end to another federal investigation.

All the while, the company attempted to shield itself from further financial harm by filing for bankruptcy, a matter currently playing out in a federal court in White Plains, N.Y. During those proceedings the company reportedly has proposed a $4.5 billion settlement to end all further claims, effectively blocking any criminal liability on the part of family members.

This, wrote Keefe, stands in contrast to how a “small-time drug dealer in Leesburg, Va.” was treated for selling a batch that caused an overdose death. The seller, faced with a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years, pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and reportedly is now serving out a 15-year federal prison sentence.

He, like countless others, is caught in the tale of two justice systems—one for the rich and the other for the not so, a fact that ironically continues to hold a puzzling narcotic grip on our sense of outrage.

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