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July 31, 2010

A must-read take on American justice courtesy of now-free Lord Conrad Black

As detailed in this news report, "media baron Conrad Black, released from jail this month on a two-million-dollar bond, lashed out at the US justice system Saturday in a column written for Toronto's National Post." This first-person column is available at this link under the headline "Conrad Black: My prison education," and here are choice excerpts from this weekend's must-read:

In my 28 months as a guest of the U.S. government, I often wondered how my time in that role would end. I never expected that I would have to serve the whole term, though I was, and am, psychologically prepared to do so, now that I have learned more of the fallibility of American justice, which does convict many people, who, like me, would never dream of committing a crime in a thousand years....

t had been an interesting experience, from which I developed a much greater practical knowledge than I had ever had before of those who had drawn a short straw from the system; of the realities of street level American race relations; of the pathology of incorrigible criminals; and of the wasted opportunities for the reintegration of many of these people into society. I saw at close range the failure of the U.S. War on Drugs, with absurd sentences, (including 20 years for marijuana offences, although 42% of Americans have used marijuana and it is the greatest cash crop in California.) A trillion dollars have been spent, a million easily replaceable small fry are in prison, and the targeted substances are more available and of better quality than ever, while producing countries such as Colombia and Mexico are in a state of civil war.

I had seen at close range the injustice of sentences one hundred times more severe for crack cocaine than for powder cocaine, a straight act of discrimination against African-Americans, that even the first black president and attorney general have only ameliorated with tepid support for a measure, still being debated, to reduce the disparity of sentence from 100 to one to 18 to one.

And I had heard the vehement allegations of many fellow residents of the fraudulence of the public defender system, where court-appointed lawyers, it is universally and plausibly alleged, are more often than not stooges of the prosecutors. They are paid for the number of clients they represent rather than for their level of success, and they do usually plead their clients to prison. They provide a thin veneer for the fable of the poor citizen’s day in court to receive impartial justice through due process.

And I had the opportunity to see why the United States has six to twelve times as many incarcerated people as other prosperous democracies, (Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom), how the prison industry grew, and successfully sought more prisoners, longer sentences, and maximal possibilities of probation violations and a swift return to custody.

Before I got into the maw of the U.S. legal system, I did not realize the country has 47 million people with a criminal record, (most for relatively trivial offenses,) or that prosecutors won more than 90% of their cases. There, at Coleman, I had seen the courage of self-help, the pathos of broken men, the drawn faces of the hopeless, the glazed expression of the heavily medicated, (90% of Americans judged to require confinement for psychiatric reasons are in the prison system), and the nonchalance of those who find prison a comfortable welfare system compared to the skid row that was their former milieu. America’s 2.4 million prisoners, and millions more awaiting trial or on supervised release, are an ostracized, voiceless legion of the walking dead; they are no one’s constituency.

July 31, 2010 at 09:33 PM | Permalink


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OUCH! Of course now they HAVE to convict him or he will use his influence to destroy them!

Posted by: rodsmith | Jul 31, 2010 11:25:09 PM

Black does not yet grasp the aim of this system, the rent. It is quite successful at that.

And if you think the prisoners are in bad shape, check out the 23 million crime victims.

The system is so bad, it is time to fire the incompetent, know nothing dumbass lawyer running it solely for his own employment and careerist purposes, and for nothing else.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jul 31, 2010 11:31:55 PM

I agree with much of what Black has to say, but I do take issue with his characterization of the public defender system. Though I have no experience at the federal level, I can't imagine that federal defenders are compensated any differently than any other public defender that I have encountered - which is a salary and not based on how many cases they handle.

That, and the public defenders that I know are anything but stooges for the prosecution. They are incredibly dedicated people who are similarly overworked. That they cannot give their clients much more than a few hours should be an indictment of the defender system, but I think Black picked the wrong target.

Posted by: Guy | Aug 1, 2010 12:05:09 AM

By my reading, he restricted his comments on the defense shortfalls to the "court-appointed" lawyers. Such lawyers are indeed paid by the judge, both in actual case appointments and in the approval of the bills submitted on each case. Harris County (Houston, TX) has just such a system (though I understand many, many other Texas jurisdictions do as well), and it's an abomination--though the natives are getting restless with heretical talk of an independent PD office.

Posted by: Mark # 1 | Aug 1, 2010 2:03:14 AM

In my (entirely federal) experience, I don't think any defense lawyers are "stooges" of the prosecution. However, as Mark # 1's comment implies, there is a significant quality difference between FDs and appointed lawyers from the CJA list. The former are salaried federal criminal specialists, with no motivation other than doing the best possible job for their client. The latter are usually jacks-of-all-trades operating solo or from small firms, and have to balance their CJA caseload against their retained criminal work and whatever civil cases they have. Depending on the attorney, this other work may or may not pay significantly better than the CJA rates. I'm not sure I would read Black's op-ed to be making this distinction, though. In cases I saw while clerking, it was more often FD clients who accuse their attorneys of being in league with the prosecution, perhaps because the FD seems like more of a gov't agency.

Posted by: Jay | Aug 1, 2010 3:11:42 PM

Let's ask Bill Otis. Bill - were the public defenders you encountered in your 18 years as a prosecutor your stooges?

Posted by: a PD | Aug 1, 2010 3:27:05 PM

I'd been hoping for something like this from Martha Stewart after her period of extorted silence (probation). Of course complaining about getting rolled by the system before going off paper is tantamount to "failing to take responsibility for the crime" and opens the door to further torments.

She hasn't done it so far, and that's too bad. She could do a lot to open people's eyes about the thuggish, ham-handed, turkey shoot of a system most people don't learn about until it's too late. Though I did see her go stony silent once when asked about the experience, and there did appear to be a glint of rage in her eyes recalling what the government did to her.

There may be no better example of what a system on an extended power binge can do to just about any of us, no matter how innocent we are of any meaningful wrongdoing or how rich and connected we might have become.

Good for Conrad Black.

Posted by: John K | Aug 1, 2010 4:28:14 PM


on this!

"In my (entirely federal) experience, I don't think any defense lawyers are "stooges" of the prosecution."

I think what he's saying is there is a major conflict of interest. that the public defender lawywers are being paid by the very people trying to convict you!

Which is about as stupid and criminal as the curent court trial of the arizona law. Sorry the state and the feds both have an ore in that water. NEITHER side can be neutral. If this was decided anywhere it should be the WORLD court!

That's the problem we have now none of the courts are impartial anymore. Thanks to the lawyer-politicians who have stacked the decks in EVERY court in the country right up to the U.S. Supreme Court there is relaly no way to win UNLESS for whatever reason they want you to.

Posted by: rodsmith | Aug 1, 2010 4:41:59 PM

of course even the world court has been stacked so it's kind of usless

Posted by: rodsmith | Aug 1, 2010 4:42:55 PM

Perhaps this dialogue will not hurry any reform in the US, but other countries are evaluating our criminal justice system when they consider extradition requests.

Posted by: beth | Aug 1, 2010 11:32:04 PM

Perhaps it is different when you have the private lawyers who are on indegent defense panels (in the state systems). They get paid by case. There was a story some years ago in _The New York Times_ questioning the caseload of one such lawyer, and implying skepticism as to whether he could handle so many.

Posted by: Ed Unneland | Aug 2, 2010 12:18:59 PM

Bill, where are you? Your silence is deafening. (And we know from one of your recent posts how significant silence is.)

Posted by: sunscreen | Aug 2, 2010 4:28:59 PM

I am a pro se litigant with no criminal record who was incarcerated by DOJ in state facilities for 5 months without a criminal charge or an arraignment.

I agree totally with Conrad Black's reporting. I was afraid of the criminally accused and did nothing to help them. Then, when I was sent to jail, noone would help me. The federal public defender wrote to me in jail and said they couldn't represent me because I wasn't accused of a crime. In two jails I was totally denied law library access. In the 3rd, I was allowed library access but all they had for law books were books on divorce and an incomplete set of 1985 American Jurisprudence.

As an example of what I thought was improper defense by a public defender..... a woman was accused by her ex boyfriend of stealing cash and tools. There was no evidence of either. She had no cash and claimed not to have any tools. She had simply broken up with her boyfriend. They didn't search her car because they said she had to pay to have her car searched and she didn't have the money. Her bail was set at $10 K, and she couldn't raise it. Her PD told her she would be convicted because she couldn't raise bail, that the jury would assume she was guilty because no one cared enough to come up with the $10K. She ended up plea bargaining to a lesser offense under the threat that she would get 10 years.

I found a quotation in American Jurisprudence from the S.C. to the effect that they had to have at least some evidence to try you and suggested she inform her PD. He said it didn't matter. Together, we wrote to the Colorado Attorney Regulation Counsel and complained that she was being pressured to plead guilty to a crime she didn't commit when she shouldn't even have been arrested or charged since they had absolutely no evidence. Her PD got really mad about that. He said that if she tried to get out of the plea bargain that she would be charged with perjury.

Posted by: kay sieverding | Aug 10, 2010 10:52:39 AM

the law does not work in any state they don't just tell you what you are charged with they make threats to force you into taking a plea bargen they believe that everyone is guilty until proven innocent this is a fine fucking country we live in where the judges courts and even your own lawyer are currupt.

Posted by: judy | Oct 29, 2010 2:02:38 PM

you should try living in colorado where they stack the jury don't look at the evidence don't investigate and let the currupt officers at the correctional facilities distroy others lives they set them up and then get them in a boat load of legal trouble because they don't like it if you don't cover up for them so they do u in.

Posted by: judy | Oct 29, 2010 2:07:25 PM

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