Leave it to a British comedian to do some of the best journalism on the American criminal justice system in 2015.
Over the past year, John Oliver, host of Last Week Tonight, put a huge spotlight on the many, many problems with American justice. Very few actors in the system were left untouched — judges, police, lawyers, prison sentences, and even basic court functions. Overall, his segments painted a picture of a justice system that is unfair, unequal, and, in some cases, actually perpetuates crime.
Here are some of Oliver's finest moments on criminal justice from 2015.
1) Elected judges
The first criminal justice issue Oliver took on in 2015 was elected judges. He said, "The problem with an elected judiciary is sometimes the right decision is neither easy nor popular. And yet, campaigns force judges to look over their shoulder on every ruling."
As Oliver noted, judicial elections, which occur in 39 states, force judges to take tough-on-crime stances to look like they're cracking down on the nation's worst criminals — just to appease voters. One study by two Emory Law School professors found that state Supreme Court justices are less likely to rule in favor of criminal defendants when TV ads label them "soft on crime." (Research has shown that these policies long ago reached the point of diminishing returns, meaning they no longer reduce crime, and instead cost taxpayers a lot of money to maintain prisons that are close to or already over capacity.)
Worse, some judges' decisions can be swayed by campaign contributions, which may come from lawyers who are presenting cases the judges are ruling on. A 2006 New York Times investigation found that justices on the Ohio Supreme Court routinely sat on cases after receiving contributions from some of the parties involved, voting in favor of contributors an average of 70 percent of the time. So elected judges are swayed not just by political rhetoric, but political money, too.
2) For-profit policing
One of the most damaging problems uncovered in the criminal justice system over the past several years is the rise of for-profit policing. Indeed, this is what the Department of Justice found in Ferguson, Missouri, after the shooting of Michael Brown: courts and police that often targeted poor, minority communities to impose fines and fees, all to raise revenue.
"No one is saying that people who break the law should not be punished," Oliver said. "Not only should municipalities not be balancing their books on the backs of some of their most vulnerable citizens, but we cannot have a system where committing a minor violation can end up putting you in — and I'm going to use a legal term of art here — the fuck barrel."
Oliver cited the story of Harriet Cleveland, who went to jail in Montgomery, Alabama, after she racked up traffic violations she couldn't afford. A private, for-profit company soon took over debt collection in Cleveland's case, and placed even more fees on her. Under these circumstances, Cleveland's life spiraled out of control: She lost her driver's license, which made it more difficult to get to work to make money to pay her fines. She took a title loan on her car, but she couldn't pay that back and eventually lost her car. Her utility bills became more difficult to pay. After she couldn't pay up, she was thrown in jail, where she remained for 10 days. And all of this occurred in the backdrop of the Great Recession around 2008, which led to Cleveland losing her job at a day care center.
Again, this terrible chain of events began with traffic violations. And if the Justice Department's report on Ferguson is any indication, Cleveland is far from alone.
3) The unequal bail system
Oliver also put a spotlight on one of the overlooked aspects of the American justice system: bail.
Bail, which is what someone has to pay to get out of jail while awaiting trial, punishes the poor more than anyone else. The disparity begins with the ability to pay: Poor defendants are going to have a much more difficult time than wealthy people paying for bail, which can range from thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars. If someone fails to pay bail, he's forced to remain in jail — a situation that can be particularly devastating for the poor. "Our clients work at jobs where if you're absent, you're fired," Josh Saunders, an attorney at Brooklyn Defender Services, said in a video by the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund. "Our clients live in shelters or in transitional housing — places where if you're not there for the night, your place is gone. So there are a lot of different ways in which incarceration, even for a short period of time, can really destroy someone's life."
If someone wants to avoid both these consequences, he can turn to commercial bail bonds, which will loan people money to pay for their bail. But, as Oliver explained, this imposes its own costs. Under normal circumstances, people get their bail money back if they're deemed not guilty. With bonds, people typically have to pay 10 to 15 percent of their bail to a bondsman regardless of the outcome of a trial. "So if your bail is $5,000 and you're found innocent, then you've basically just paid a $750 fee to a bondsman for doing absolutely nothing wrong," Oliver said. That may not be a big cost to wealthy or even middle-class people — but it's absolutely crippling for the poor.
4) The horrific impact of mandatory minimum sentences for drugs
Oliver's next target: mandatory minimum sentences for drugs.
Although drug offenders make up a small portion of the overall prison population, the sentences these prisoners receive can be ridiculously disproportional. In a particularly extreme example, Weldon Angelos is serving 55 years for marijuana trafficking, in part because he had a gun in his possession during several stings. Oliver argued, "He won't get out until he's 79 for selling something that's currently legal for recreational use in four states and whose main side effect is making episodes of Frasier slightly funnier."
The research shows that these policies, and others that made the US into the world's leader in incarceration, are excessive and now do little to reduce crime. As Kevin Ring, a former congressional aide who helped enact mandatory minimums and now speaks out against them through the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, told Congress, "Most of these guys made stupid mistakes without any idea of what the punishment was — they just didn't think they were going to get caught. So you can make the severity off the charts. You can do a life sentence for jaywalking. It's not going to stop it."
5) Public defenders can't actually defend their clients
If you know your Miranda rights, you know that you're guaranteed the right to an attorney. But that doesn't mean you'll get a good attorney.
Oliver argued that public defenders are so overworked that very often they simply can't provide a good defense for their clients. They can have backlogs of cases that add up to the dozens or hundreds, and they may have just a few minutes to prepare for someone's case and defend that person. A 2009 study by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, for example, found that public defenders in New Orleans are effectively limited to seven minutes per case.
The result is a system that's so clogged that public defenders are perpetually underprepared for their clients. Very often, this plays to the prosecutor's advantage, since public defenders may decide that it's better to settle for a plea deal — even if their client is innocent — just to avoid having to see the full case through a lengthy trial when the defense is already low on time.
"It is easy not to care about this," Oliver said. "It's easy to assume that if someone is being represented by a public defender, they're probably guilty. But many are not, and some only plead [guilty] because they feel they have no alternative."
6) The criminal justice system actually makes it harder for ex-prisoners to reintegrate
In America, more than 600,000 people are released from prison each year. And, as John Oliver pointed out, the US by and large sets up these ex-inmates to fail.
As Oliver explained, in the 1980s and '90s federal and state lawmakers imposed legal barriers — widely known as "collateral consequences" — that effectively stop released inmates from getting a job, an education, or even a house. In one case covered by the Associated Press, New York City resident Geraldine Miller faced the threat of eviction from her public housing because her son, an ex-convict, helped her with groceries when she became ill. "Look, we all want people who've committed crimes to learn their lesson," Oliver said. "But 'never help your sick mother with groceries' sounds more like the kind of lesson you learned from a shitty Boy Scout leader."
Collateral consequences apply to all sorts of other issues. It's legal in most states for employers to ask in job applications about someone's criminal record and not hire someone for a prior crime. Some states ban ex-prisoners from working in all sorts of jobs, from nursing to alligator ranching. People who have served out felony convictions often can't apply for public housing or Pell Grants. They can't vote in many states. They can't receive welfare benefits. All of these things can make it more difficult for a former inmate to get a job and legally make a living, or at the very least signal to him that society will never accept him, making him much more likely to turn to a life of crime.
The result is a criminal justice system that's often unfair and self-destructive. The point of the justice system, after all, is to prevent crime. But by throwing so many people in jail and prison without a fair opportunity to defend themselves, inflicting disproportionate punishments on those people, and making it so difficult for them to reintegrate into society, it often perpetuates crime.